It’s not too hard to explain why people hate Clinton — equal parts sexism and her genuine lack of personal appeal, I would say — but I think Republican love for Obama is a little weirder. My partial explanation is that Obama is black. Republicans aren’t complete morons — they know they have a reputation for racist attitudes and policies. Many of them are really defensive about it. They constantly remind their relatives and friends how they don’t see any difference between black and white, they believe we’re all equal, they support civil rights, etc. But it’s hard to adopt any low-cost behaviors that signify such anti-racist perspectives without causing awkwardness. We all feel sort of weird around that white guy who spends every waking minute talking about civil wars in Africa, blood diamonds, his appreciation for the music of Bob Marley, and so forth. He means well enough but we don’t know how to read him — to what extent is his conspicuous demonstration of virtue an endearing flirtation with genuinely progressive politics, and to what extent is it all just a cover?
Obama support offers people a chance to symbolically demonstrate their enlightenment at no cost. I’ve heard and read a number of times now about racist white people developing a strange attachment to Obama. They don’t normally like Democrats but this kid seems alright. It doesn’t hurt that he uses language designed to help him buddy up with those who are, more or less, afraid of black people — he is, in some ways, professionally a nonthreatening black man. I don’t mean that as a criticism. To an extent this highlights the expert way in which he has navigated this country’s complicated and often awful relationship with race, but ultimately it doesn’t mean much for his chances come election day. People are brilliant in this country at finding ways to vote conservative when everything they know tells them not to. My mother knew Bush was a disaster and she voted for him anyway not because Kerry would do anything to make abortion more common but because he approved of it. They’ll find something or other like that come election day if Obama gets the nod. There’s no reason they can’t say one thing and do another. They might even go on doing it after the fact. Obama has been adopted by many racists and anxious, defensive republicans as a symbol, but that’s as far as it goes.
I think there is something to this. In a nominally color-blind society, people need to have someone they can point to as proof that they are not making judgments based on color. It's tough to swing that when the only politicians you ever vote for are White. Finding that one guy you can support makes for a great bulwark against future charges of racism. And, as Meginnis says, you can always find a last-minute reason to vote for his opponent anyway -- just so long as you continue to assert how much you like Obama. But is there any substantive anti-racism message or practice in one's support of Obama?
A few months ago, my friends asked me why I was supporting Obama, and among the several answers I gave, one was that I thought it was long since time we had a Black (or just non-White) President. They laughed and accused me of casting an "affirmative action vote."
At first, I recoiled from the term, but the more I've thought about it, the more I think it's okay. Voting, after all, is just a way of divvying up a particular social good, and in fact, as a young, relatively powerless college student, it's one of the most direct avenues I have for pointing how I think society should distribute a particular socially salient position. Taking seriously my own position on affirmative action, which is that it accurately takes "contribution to diversity" into account as a function of merit, there is no reason why Obama breaking up the Whites-only club at the White House ought not factor into my decision. It's one more thing about Obama that makes him better from the rest of the field.
That doesn't mean it couldn't possibly be outweighed. If I found Obama's policies to be wrong-headed, or I thought he wasn't qualified to take the helm as commander-and-chief, or I thought that his opponents' views were substantially more in line with my own, then those factors could easily take precedence over the diversity plus factor. But that doesn't mean it isn't a relevant consideration.