Most politicians have figured out that it backfires when you say something racist (the Republican Party has even issued rules to try to avoid future “Macaca moments”). The trick, however, is to somehow appeal to racist fears while not appearing to actually be racist.
For example, in 2006, the Republicans ran a now-infamous negative TV ad against black Senate candidate Harold Ford. For the most part it was a typical negative political ad, but it accused him of taking porn money and ended with a young white woman winking salaciously and saying “Harold, call me”. The result was devastating. Ford was ahead before the ad ran, but his campaign plummeted and he lost the election. The moral? Putting black men in the same ad as sexy white woman scares the pants off some voters.
Fast forward to 2008, and the Republicans are running a new ad containing Obama and young white women like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Note that neither of these women have anything to do with Obama, and both have gotten quite a bit of media attention for their sexual exploits. The Republicans can claim that they are just trying to compare Obama to other “top” celebrities, so they have plausible deniability.
But here’s the interesting bit. When Obama complained about this ad, McCain’s campaign manager snapped back “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck.” Ignore for a moment that McCain is blaming the target of his own ad for playing the race card. The more interesting point is that McCain’s response is almost exactly the same as a famous quote from lawyer Robert Shapiro “Not only did we play the race card, we dealt it from the bottom of the deck.” As you may remember, Shapiro was talking about how they won the O.J. Simpson trial, where a black man was accused of killing a white woman.
Coincidence? Or just blatant irony?
UPDATE 2: The Brits have a term for this kind of message — they call it a “dog whistle”. Just like a real dog whistle is a whistle that only dogs can hear, in politics, a “dog whistle” sends a message that only a certain constituency will hear or understand.