VIDEO: Obama's at Selma. From YouTube's "YouChoose '08" channel
When Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy, there was some wild speculation — driven chiefly by early polls and bloggers such as Mickey Kaus — that Obama might not receive a large share of the black vote. The reasoning was that Obama — whose mother was white, whose father was Kenyan, and who grew up primarily in Hawaii and Indonesia — did not share the African-American “slavery heritage,” and that therefore many American blacks would reject him.
After Obama’s stirring appearance in Selma, Alabama, a week or so ago, the truth is becoming more apparent. There is an understandable pride among voters whenever “one of their own” seeks the nation’s highest office. John F. Kennedy did better among Catholics than any Democrat in recent history; Mitt Romney will do very well among Mormons, and most presidential candidates usually get a huge home-state bounce. Black voters are not going to be an exception to this rule.
How important is that advantage? It’s enormous, and it’s largely why Obama — not Hillary Clinton — is the current favorite to be the Democratic nominee. Black voters are a huge constituency in the Democratic primaries — around 20 percent — and they give Obama a solid base to build on in virtually every state (though not, interestingly, in Iowa or New Hampshire), all but guaranteeing he’ll stay in the race until the end. It also gives him unusual strength in many states that would normally not be fertile ground for a staunch Illinois liberal.
Equally important, these are voters Hillary Clinton’s campaign had figured would be overwhelmingly supporting her, largely because of the black community’s close ties to Bill Clinton in the past. Simply put, Obama’s candidacy has blown a huge hole in the Clinton effort’s foundation.
Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign is instructive. In the Democratic primaries that year, Jackson captured 92 percent of the black vote, carrying him to wins in 11 states — including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia — all of which will be prime targets for Obama as well. Jackson’s popularity among black voters also gave him, as it will Obama, a huge delegate boost nationally, since convention delegates are apportioned by congressional district. Throughout the country, a number of predominantly black districts will give Obama pockets of support come convention time.
Obama has another advantage. He is, by many accounts, the most charismatic Democratic presidential candidate on the scene since Robert F. Kennedy — as a campaigner, on a par with Ronald Reagan and JFK. True, there is plenty of time for Obama to stumble and to prove right those critics who say he is too green to make it through a tough campaign for the White House. But so far, he’s more than cleared the hurdles in front of him.
This isn’t to denigrate Hillary Clinton’s considerable assets. She is the first female presidential candidate with a real chance to win. She’s got a first-class organization with plenty of money. But she’s still Bill Clinton’s wife, and with all the benefits of that distinction comes a lot of baggage.
Electing a woman president would be a historic first. But a bigger point of pride for many voters, given the nation’s history, would be electing the first black. Admittedly this is just an impression, but after interviewing a number of voters, my hunch is that many would love to have the chance to vote for a black candidate. While many would also like to vote for a woman, the truth is that in many parts of the country Hillary is extraordinarily unpopular. I sense that a number of voters have Clinton fatigue and wish Bill and Hillary would, well, disappear.
Obama has a long way to go. But right now, he looks like the real thing.
Barack Obama. Odds for nomination: 6-5.
Strengths: Charismatic, compelling communicator who has a real chance to be America’s first black president. That brings him enormous political advantages (see above). As far as primary Dems are concerned, right on all the issues, including Iraq.
Weaknesses: Relatively new on the political scene and has never run for national office before, so he will make mistakes.
Bottom Line: It will take a superstar to derail the Hillary juggernaut. Unfortunately for her, Obama looks like he may be one.
Hillary Clinton. Odds for nomination: 7-4.
Strengths: She’s a big-name candidate, the first woman to seek the presidency who has a real chance to win, and the beneficiary of her husband’s powerful political operation, with all its fundraising prowess.
Weaknesses: She also inherits all the baggage from the Clinton era. Has always had very high negatives in polls. Has angered liberals with her stance on Iraq. So far, not the greatest candidate on the trail; seems to be “The Unhappy Warrior.”
Bottom Line: Were Obama not in the race, she’d be the odds-on favorite to win. But he is.