Why Obama came last
I did ask the question that was on everyone's mind: Did Obama come last because he is an African American? The unanimous answer - and I think it was also sincere - was "no." But maybe it's worth a closer look.
It's been a week since our first Israel Factor survey, and my initial analysis rightly dealt with the clear winner, Rudy Giuliani. All the while, however, a question about the loser was troubling me: Why was Barack Obama ranked bottom?
Talking to some of the panelists this week, I tried to understand if there was anything significant about the fact that the popular senator from Illinois came last, or if it was just coincidence. I got different answers from different panelists, and, delving into Obama's numbers again, now I think it's time to present some limited conclusions.
Let's start with the data:
1. Obama got low marks from almost everybody on the panel.
2. He scored badly on every single question we asked (3.75 on Iran, 4.88 on emotional attachment to Israel).
3. Obama did better than Hagel, Huckabee and Vilsack (the three ranked directly above him) on some of the questions, but on question 5, the one dealing with more general perceptions, he did worse than all three.
4. There's not one question, apart from question 5, in which Obama came last.
5. One could not detect any pattern to explain the panel's votes. There were no differences between left and right, academics and practitioners etc.
What do we learn from this? That there's a group of possible candidates (and let's face it, Obama is not what you'd call a "likely" candidate) that the panel does not trust on the issues. None of them is a "high profile" candidate in the sense that Israelis already know him very well.
And, as one panel member told me yesterday, "If you don't trust someone, you try to be careful with him." This is as true for Huckabee and Vilsack as it is for Obama. With Hagel, it's more straight forward, as he positioned himself as a critic, for which he got lower marks from many in the panel. This is also true for John Kerry, ranked fifth from the bottom, whom the panel do know but don't trust.
But, again, why did Obama come last?
I asked around and was told that Jewish activists in the Chicago area tend to think he is pro-Israel in the most sincere way. Some mentioned his trip to Israel, others highlighted his perfect record in the Senate on Israel-related issues. But the panelists still didn't feel they knew enough about him.
It's "the unknown factor," one explained. "What kind of constituency does he bring with him, and how will they influence his positions?"
Another panelist told me that, "we need more time to trust him. Voting for Israel a couple of times doesn't constitute enough of a track record on which to make a more favorable judgment."
I also asked the question that's on everyone's mind: Is it because he is African American?
The near unanimous answer, and I think it was also a sincere one, was "definitely not." One panelist even backed up his argument to a certain extent by pointing out that Condoleezza Rice ranked pretty well. So it can't be that the issue of color played a role.
However, and I'm trying to be careful, but not to mask my suspicions, I think that subconsciously it might have played a small part (one panel member told me as much). One mustn't forget that relations between the African American community and Israel aren't always good, and that many African American leaders take strong positions against Israel.
Of course, Obama is not the one to blame for that. Guilt by association, and association by color, are things we all want and try to avoid. But let's face it, we don't always succeed. And this might explain why Obama was pushed, just a little, below Huckabee and Vilsack.