Political Hay

Guess Who’s Coming to Des Moines

Hillary Clinton's best hope is that black and white Democrats will think the rest of the country is too racist to elect an African-American president.

By 12.20.07

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If you want to assume the Clintons are devious, five-steps-ahead political operators -- and, really, why not assume? -- it seems somehow important that their lower-level allies are so handy with uncomfortable truths about Barack Obama.

Yes, New Hampshire fixer Billy Shaheen quit the campaign after going on a lengthy ramble about Obama's (long-acknowledged) youthful use of cocaine, but can the Clintons be so devastated that the drug story is out there again?

Or take Perry County, Alabama, Commissioner Albert Turner. Early in December, he told a Democratic group to back Hillary Clinton because "the question you have to put forth to yourself is that whether or not in this racist country a black man named Obama -- when we are shooting at Osama -- can win the presidency of the United States?"

Turner, clearly worried about being too subtle, stressed that Clinton was more electable than Obama "because of her husband and because of some other things, mainly because she's white."

Comments like that could never, ever be spoken by the pride of Park Ridge, Illinois, herself. And they might not need to be prompted. Since February, when Barack Obama officially jumped into the presidential race, Hillary Clinton has maintained a competitive chunk of the black vote -- an edge, actually, until only the last month.

There are two reasons usually given for this advantage. The first, amorphous and hard to prove, is that black voters don't consider the half-white, half-African Obama authentically black. Fun to argue about in private but tough to make into an issue. The closest anyone's come was former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young joking that Bill Clinton had "probably been with more black women than Barack."

If Clinton campaign is planning to roll out more surrogates to argue this, it has kept them awfully quiet.

The other reason the black vote split -- Albert Turner's reason -- is more compelling. It's that whites won't vote for a black man.

It's an argument bandied about in private every day and shoved into the spotlight every few months. It really took on weight in February, when South Carolina State Senator Robert Ford endorsed Hillary explicitly because America would not elect a black man named Obama.

"We'd lose the House and the Senate and the governors and everything," Ford said. "He'd have to get 47 to 49 percent of the white vote in every state, and that's humanly impossible."

In July the Obama-sympathetic (and black) Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote sadly, "I hear from African Americans who are excited about Obama's candidacy but who suspect that somehow, when push comes to shove, 'they' won't let him win."

ROBINSON SPECULATED about it, and Ford proved it: This worry doesn't actually have any facts backing it up.

The idea that most Americas wouldn't vote for a black candidate, the idea that they'll tell pollsters one thing and then do another, the idea that Obama would lose the white vote and thereby lose the presidency: All are fatally flawed notions.

Take the "whites won't vote for Obama" theory. Every poll taken this decade has come back with majorities of Americans willing to vote for a black candidate, believing that the country is ready for a black president, and believing that their fellow voters share that enlightenment.

The numbers dip from question to question: Only 4 percent of voters would reject a black candidate, while a sizable 31 percent of whites doubt the country is ready for their bold decision. Those white voters, though, are dwarfed by the 42 percent of blacks who don't think the country is ready. They simply refuse to believe what whites tell the pollsters.

The most-respected reason for that skepticism is the "whites are lying to pollsters" theory, which political scientists actually have a name for: the "Wilder Effect." In 1989, Virginia Lt. Gov Douglas Wilder held a sizable poll lead in the state's gubernatorial race. On election night, he nearly lost.

But over the summer the New York Times' Janet Maslin investigated the "Wilder Effect" to find if we could rename it for Obama. It was one of those investigations that raised more mysteries than it solved.

First, it's clear that the bullish Wilder polls were flawed: the very last polls in the race showed some tightening, and the exit polls that showed a big Wilder win were conducted in person -- there's more distortion there than you see in telephone polls.

Second, Maslin's newest piece of data -- former Rep. Harold Ford's 2006 race for Senate in Tennessee -- showed that a lot had changed in 17 years. Ford actually outperformed polls which showed him losing badly, winning voters who'd chosen Bush over Kerry, coming within 3 points of the win.

If Maslin had expanded the survey, she'd have proved it four more times. Ford was one of five black candidates for either governor or senator in 2006, the others being Democrat Deval Patrick for Massachusetts governor and three Republicans: Lynn Swann for Pennsylvania governor, Ken Blackwell for Ohio governor, and Michael Steele for a Maryland senate seat.

In every race the black candidate faced a white candidate, and in every race the results matched up with the final polls within the margin of error -- one or two points. (Steele lost by a little more, but polls were distorted by an independent candidate who underperformed on election day.)

Skeptics will argue that the White House is different: People don't have to see their senators or governors on TV every day, and they aren't handing them the nuclear football. All true, all hard to prove theoretically, but that third theory -- that Obama would need near-parity or a majority of white votes to win the presidency -- is the most easily debunked.

Democrats never get the 47 to 49 percent of the white vote that Sen. Robert Ford said Obama would need. They need closer to 44 percent. Al Gore won the popular vote with only 42 percent of the white vote. John Kerry came one state away from the presidency with 41 percent of the white vote.

In fact, no Democrat has gotten parity with white voters since Lyndon Johnson convinced America that Barry Goldwater would slip tactical nukes into their Christmas stockings.

ALL OF THIS COMPLICATES what has always been a shaky argument: that Hillary Clinton, one of the most polarizing figures in American politics, is more electable than the Democrats' alternative.

If she loses the Iowa caucus to Obama he'll have scooped up thousands of those liberal white voters who say they're ready for him. If that domino falls, New Hampshire is a single-digit race and she could lose that, too.

Two states with tiny black populations falling to Obama could dispel some of the worries black Democrats have about what white voters really think, and the next big-ticket primary will be held in Robert Ford's South Carolina, where about half the Democratic primary electorate is black. Unless their worries are more kneejerk than 10,000 visits to the doctor's office, those voters will be impossible to ignore.

I wondered about how the earlier contests might affect things in South Carolina, so I called State Senator Ford. He picked up the phone and I started to ask about the white vote.

"Hold on," said Ford. "You're doing what that reporter did. You're taking what I said and changing it into some silliness."

Did he stand by what he said?

"I said Hillary is the candidate who can win, and that reporter started in, asking about Obama. I don't spend my time thinking about Obama."

But if Obama could win in Iowa and New Hampshire, winning majorities of white Democrats, would Ford still be worried about him holding white voters for the Democrats?

"How do you compare a Democratic primary where you have eight candidates splitting the vote -- how would you equate that with an election with one Republican and one Democrat?" he asked.

It was a pretty good point; those New Hampshire and Iowa white Democrats are true-blue liberals. Ford pushed on: "You name me three states that will elect [a] black candidate to a statewide office."

I had three: Obama's Illinois and Massachusetts and Virginia, the two that have elected black governors.

"What about what happened to Harold Ford in Tennessee? What happened to that brother in Maryland?"

I pointed out that Virginia and Massachusetts are whiter than those states.

"What's getting elected governor of Virginia got to do with getting elected president? Come on."

So could Clinton win because she'll get the black votes Obama would get plus the white votes candidates like Harold Ford didn't get?

"She'd win because she's the best candidate of all time. I'm not talking about Barack Obama."

And what about...

Ford hung up the phone.

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