com January 14, 2008
When the candidates for president say they want to bring "change" to
the White House, not a one of them, in either party, could pull off
the change an Obama presidency could bring.
A black man as president of the United States? It's hard to top that
for change. Up until now Obama's blackness has been treated by most
political commentators as more of a curiosity than a central
campaign issue. But the New Hampshire results provided a jarring
reality check. Racism may be muted in the United States, but it's
still with us a fact of political life.
One of the first campaigns I worked on as a political consultant was
a special election for Congress in Alaska. My candidate was an
Athabascan Indian. Every poll we had in that campaign showed us with
a 10 point or better lead. But we lost. It was my first lesson that
poll respondents don't volunteer their prejudice when being
interviewed. Years later I worked with Doug Wilder in Virginia.
Again we had strong poll numbers. But when Virginians voted it took
a recount to confirm Wilder's election as governor.
There are so many examples of black candidates not running as
strongly as their poll numbers that poll takers routinely build in a
discount factor to their results when weighting actual interviews.
That's a significant little secret most people didn't know until the
polling firms scrambled to explain the New Hampshire results.
In Iowa, Obama actually ran better than advance polling suggested.
But Iowa didn't have an election in the traditional sense. No one in
Iowa's caucuses could vote by secret ballot and hide their
Since New Hampshire, many have been tip-toeing around the obvious
truth: race determined the outcome. The race-based vote wasn't
large, but it was enough to tip the balance and to breathe new life
into the Clinton campaign.
In South Carolina, race is front and center. Clinton and Obama have
been openly competing for the black vote, and as that state's
January 19 election nears, the majority of the state's black voters
are lining up behind Obama. In fact, one of Obama's claims on the
presidential nomination is that he can bring out enough black voters
in November to turn some southern states blue.
The racial divide that still exists in the U.S. is recognized more
by blacks than whites. Responding to a CNN poll conducted about this
time last year, 49 percent of the blacks interviewed said racism is
a "very serious" problem, while only 18 percent of whites shared
When TV shows reach out to interview black leaders they invariably
call on Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton or Andrew Young as the most
recognizable voices on racial issues. Significantly, not a one of
them is supporting Obama. Young is backing Clinton; Jackson and
Sharpton haven't declared for either candidate.
Shelby Steele, a black academic who has written widely about race
relations, was interviewed by Bill Moyers on Moyers' PBS Journal
last week and expressed the opinion that the Obama phenomenon is
threatening to the nation's civil rights leadership. That
leadership, he argues, derives much of its power from the angry chip
many blacks carry on their shoulders from centuries of abuse.
Steele characterizes the Obama message as a new bargain with the
white community that goes like this: you forget I'm black and I'll
forget you're a racist.
If Obama's message succeeds, says Steele, the old civil rights
leadership will lose the power that comes through confrontation.
Beyond the familiar leadership faces, race is very much a factor for
ordinary black voters. For most of 2007 black voters were reluctant
to jump on Obama's bandwagon simply because they felt he had no
chance to win and were concerned with what an Obama campaign might
do to distort racial relations.
But something happened after Iowa. When Bill Clinton characterized
the Obama campaign as a "fairy tale," that was widely interpreted in
the black community as Clinton dismissing the idea that a black can
be elected president. That's an idea with a lot of currency among
blacks, but it landed on them harshly when a prominent white---particularl
y Bill Clinton---said it. Clinton
has been scrambling ever since to attribute other meanings to his
Then Hillary Clinton compounded her husband's error by suggesting
that Lyndon Johnson had more to do with passage of landmark civil
rights legislation than Martin Luther King. Her statement, along
with Bill Clinton's are readily explainable in non-racist terms, but
both comments swim in a sea of electro-charged sensitivity serving
to bond black voters to Obama, just as we are witnessing the first
indications of white flight away from him.
The idea of a mixed race, former community organizer from the
Chicago streets, with a middle name identical to Iraq's former
dictator, rising to take on and defeat entrenched political power
and be the leader of the free world could well be considered a fairy
tale. One that could melt old ideas of what's possible in American
politics, and, quite possibly, what's possible in American
That would be change like this nation has seldom seen. It's making a
lot of people, both whites and blacks, very anxious. But there's no
escaping the fact that race is emerging from the shadows of this
campaign and over the next few weeks it will likely determine the
Democratic nomination, and possibly the presidency.
Joe Rothstein, editor of US Politics Today, is a former daily
newspaper editor and long-time national political strategist based
in Washington, D.C.