There will be no “Willie Horton-esque” appeals in the current election season, but racial messages will likely be used in a number of different ways, according to a pair of scholars paying close attention to the way that racial messages are used in a select number of races this year.
Charlton McIlwain, an assistant professor of culture and communication at New York University, and Stephen Maynard Caliendo, a political scientist at Avila University, head the Project on Race in Political Communication (RaceProject.Org), which is monitoring a number of Congressional and Senate campaigns involving racial minorities during the 2004 election season.
“Chances are, we won’t see any of the explicit, vitriolic attacks on race that we’ve seen in the past, such as the Willie Horton ad in the 1988 presidential election or the infamous ‘white hands’ ad used by Jesse Helms against Harvey Gantt in 1990,” McIlwain said. “But that doesn’t mean race won’t be a factor.”
“In this election cycle we’re likely to see different forms of subtle racial appeals made by minority candidates and white candidates alike-messages that serve a variety of different strategies,” added Caliendo, “and those that will have bearing on both their particular contests, as well as the presidential election.”
Having kept a close watch on all U.S. House and Senate races involving minorities as they have evolved since the first of this year, McIlwain and Caliendo are now focusing on a small handful of contests that they say will be most competitive and/or interesting in terms of the dynamics of race and racial rhetoric likely to be used. The following is a list of the races the scholars will be monitoring:
Illinois, Senate - Barack Obama (D) vs. Alan Keyes (R) With Alan Keyes playing the “I’m-more-black-than-you-are” card almost as soon as he was made his party’s last minute choice to face Obama, this race is likely to see more of the same rhetoric throughout the election as Keyes mounts what many view as an impossible fight.
Georgia, Senate - Denise Majette (D) vs. Johnny Isakson (R) In this state that has a large African-American population, and a racially-charged atmosphere, the use and tone of racial rhetoric by Isakson, who is white, against Majette, his black opponent, will depend largely on how tight the contest gets as we approach Election Day.
Colorado, Senate - Richard Salazar (D) vs. Pete Coors (R) In what may be the most competitive Senate race this cycle, the state’s sizeable Hispanic population could make all the difference. Look for Pete Coors to add issues such as immigration reform to mobilize whites who comprise the overwhelming majority of the state’s population.
Florida, Senate - Mel Martinez (R) vs. Betty Castor (D) Martinez is Hispanic in a state where that racial group’s vote is split, with a sizeable number of Cuban-Americans having favored Republican candidates in elections over the past several years. Look for Castor to appeal to the same group by claiming that Martinez, though he may be Hispanic, does not and will not represent their interests as a Republican.
Georgia, House District 4 - Cynthia McKinney (D) vs. Catherine Davis (R) Much like this year’s Illinois Senate contest, this race will likely see each candidate making claims about racial (black) authenticity. Unlike the Obama-Keyes fight over this issue, however, these will be made in a district where it may really count as the majority of the voting population is African American.
Missouri, House District 5 - Emanuel Cleaver (D) vs. Jeanne Patterson (R) This race is not expected to be very close. Cleaver, the African American candidate, is expected to win handily in this district that has a sizeable African American population. But more areas of rural Missouri (south of Kansas City) have been added to the district since the 2000 census. Look for code words that are used for race in this contest. When candidates mention the suburban or rural areas of the district by name, they are appealing to a white constituency.
More substantive analyses of these races are featured on the Project’s website, RaceProject.Org. Analyses of the most recent campaign rhetoric, television and radio advertising and other communications will be updated as they happen from now until Election Day.