Rendell: Racism Helped Me Win Reelection

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell is being accused of racism and fear mongering for a comment he made over the weekend about the presidential election. I'll ...
by | February 14, 2008

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell is being accused of racism and fear mongering for a comment he made over the weekend about the presidential election. I'll accuse him of something else: honesty.

Here's what Rendell said, as reported by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman:

"You've got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate."

That statement is true.

In a CBS News/New York Times poll last month, 6% of registered voters said that they wouldn't vote for a black presidential candidate (90% said they would). The 6% figure is a point for two higher than some similar polls in recent years, but fairly typical. I'm willing to guess that the real figure is somewhat more than 6%, since it's likely that some racists prefer not to announce their racism to strangers who call on the telephone.

In 2004, 122 million Americans voted for president. Using the conservative estimate of 6%, 7.3 million of them wouldn't have supported a black candidate. Undoubtedly, some of those people live in Pennsylvania.

The reason Rendell's remark caused a stir, however, is that he is a supporter of Hillary Clinton. Did Rendell imply that Democrats should nominate Clinton because Obama's race makes him unelectable?

If so, that's a lousy argument. When similar polls ask about other groups, larger percentages of voters express unwillingness to support a presidential candidate who is Hispanic, Muslim, Mormon, gay, an atheist or, yes, a woman.

Those results may say more about the acceptability of prejudice toward each group than the prevalence of prejudice. Still, Obama's race is likely to be both a help and a hindrance, with the net effect difficult to determine, much like John Kennedy's Catholicism in 1960.

I'd have to know more about the context of Rendell's remark to say whether he was really arguing that Hillary is more electable than Obama based on race -- whether Rendell was asked specifically about race or whether he brought the subject up himself. For what it's worth, Norman correctly describes Rendell as "voluble." I'd add that, quite frankly, he sometimes doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut.

For those interested in state politics, the second half of Rendell's quote was perhaps even more noteworthy. Here's what he said (the parenthetical comments are Norman's): 

"I believe, looking at the returns in my election, that had Lynn Swann [2006 Republican gubernatorial candidate] been the identical candidate that he was --well-spoken [note: Mr. Rendell did not call the brother "articulate"], charismatic, good-looking -- but white instead of black, instead of winning by 22 points, I would have won by 17 or so."

How often do you hear a politician say he benefited from racism? There are probably about a hundred ways you could describe that remark, but self-serving isn't one of them.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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