How ironic is this?
According to recent polls, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is running neck-and-neck with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton among likely voters in Iowa’s presidential caucus and has dramatically cut her lead in New Hampshire. Both states have minuscule black populations.
But Clinton has a higher approval rating among blacks nationwide than does Obama, according to a poll released a few days ago by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
That suggests it’s possible Obama could win in Iowa and New Hampshire only to see his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination run aground when voters go to the polls in states with sizeable black populations – such as South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Alabama and New York.
In the Joint Center poll, conducted for AARP, Clinton had an 83 percent favorable rating among blacks. Just 9.7 percent of blacks viewed her unfavorably.
Obama had a favorable rating of 74.4 percent, and was rated “unfavorable” by 10.1 percent of blacks likely to vote in the presidential primaries, according to the Washington-based think tank.
While these findings may surprise a lot of people outside the political mainstream, they were well known to the Obama camp even before the Joint Center’s findings were published. For weeks now, Obama and a tight circle of his supporters have been trying to figure out how to win over black voters, who ought to be his core constituency.
Instead of giving Obama the kind of backing they gave Jesse Jackson in his two attempts to win the Democratic presidential nomination, many black voters are casting their lot with Clinton. Clinton’s backers say those voters believe she’s the best Democrat for the job.
Obama’s supporters contend that much of Clinton’s black support is soft. It’s not that black voters believe Clinton is a better candidate, those supporters say. They simply don’t believe Americans will put a black man in the White House. Even more chilling, some worry that voting for Obama might make him the target of a racist assassin.
Recently, the leading organization of black Democrats in Alabama, the Alabama Democratic Conference, unanimously endorsed Clinton. Blacks make up 26 percent of Alabama’s population – and an even larger percentage of the state’s Democratic voters.
“Obama is a nice young fellow and well educated,” said state Rep. Alvin Holmes, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. “But due to racism in America, he’s not going to win. Our primary objective is to get a Democrat elected president of the United States. The average person in America knows he’s not going to get elected.”
In Georgia, congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis has endorsed Clinton, who has a wide lead over Obama in the state.
In Maryland, another state with a large percentage of black Democratic voters, Clinton leads Obama by a wide polling margin, and appears to have a solid base of support among black voters.
All this leaves Obama with a lot of work to do in a short amount of time, if he wants the kind of overwhelming support Jackson enjoyed among black voters during his two White House races. That kind of support could help win important victories in the blitz of presidential primary contests to be held in the first six weeks of 2008.
Such a turnaround already may be happening in South Carolina, where blacks make up nearly half of the state’s Democratic voters and where Obama has worked mightily to overcome the fears blacks have about his candidacy. The latest Clemson University Palmetto Poll has him about even with Clinton, who in August led Obama by 10 percentage points.
If Obama can assuage the concerns of black voters elsewhere in the country in the coming weeks, his chances of winning the Democratic nomination will improve dramatically. If not, his candidacy will fizzle early in the new year.
DeWayne Wickham is a Maryland-based columnist who writes for USA TODAY. E-mail: DeWayneWickham@aol.com.