U.S. voters seem ready to elect a black president. Barack Obama is counting on it. BY LUIZA CH. SAVAGE

February 5 2007


U.S. voters seem ready to elect a black president. Barack Obama is counting on it. BY LUIZA CH. SAVAGE

February 5 2007


U.S. voters seem ready to elect a black president. Barack Obama is counting on it. BY LUIZA CH. SAVAGE

IN ALL OF U.S. HISTORY, ONLY FIVE AFRICAN Americans have ever been elected to the U.S. Senate. Two, however, were elected during the post-Civil War period, when some Confederate soldiers were actually banned by law from voting. That means that, as long as white folks have had a say, it’s been only three— and that’s counting Illinois Senator Barack Hussein Obama. What makes anyone seriously believe that Americans are ready to elect a black man to the White House?

Yet believe they do. The 45-year-old lawyer from Chicago with the Harvard pedigree and handsome pectorals has made some Democrats swoon with excitement. He’s drawing comparisons to John F. Kennedy. His elegant lawyer wife, Michelle, the mother of two adorable little girls who rises each morning at 4:30 to run on a treadmill, is cast as Jackie O. Even before Obama launched a committee on Jan. 16 to “explore” his possible candidacy, he’d been touted as the biggest threat to what was supposed to be the coronation of Hillary Rodham Clinton, senator and former first lady, who last Saturday officially entered the race with the announcement that she is “in to win.”

Obama is planning a formal announcement for Feb. 10 in Springfield, 111.—the home of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican presi-

OBAMA after a White House meeting between Bush and members of Congress

dent who freed the slaves. Few people had heard of him before the self-described “skinny kid with the funny name” gave a skin-tingling address at the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston, in which he called on Americans to unite as “one people.” Now, the son of a white Kansan mother and a Kenyan immigrant is polling better than Clinton in the early primary states of New Hampshire and Iowa (although in these early stages Clinton has a solid lead in national polls, with Obama second and John Edwards, the former vice-presidential nominee, running third). Obama is drawing the money and backing of high-profile former Hillary supporters such as billionaire George Soros and entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey, who in September declared, “If he would run, I would do everything in my power to campaign for him.” Either something historic is going on in American racial politics, or a lot of smart deluding themselves.

It would, of course, be foolish to pretend there is not a lot of American racial history Obama has to transcend. He and many of his enthusiasts are too young to remember the civil rights battles that still loom large in the living memory of many Americans. In 1965, half the population of Alabama was black, but only two per cent were registered voters because white authorities worked hard to keep it that way. When Alabamans in Selma marched in protest, police on horseback famously attacked them with tear gas, clubs and whips. When Shirley Chisholm became the first African American and the first woman to run for president in 1972, her efforts were largely symbolic. When Jesse Jackson, Jr., ran for the Democratic nomination in 1984, he came in third and won a handful of southern primaries. Four years later, he managed to come in second. Since then, there has been only the 2004 ill-fated presidential candidacy of the Rev. Al Sharpton, a talk-show host and one-time tour manager for James Brown.

But today, there are numerous signs suggesting that, yes, the voting public is ready to elect a black candidate-at least the right black candidate—to govern them. Those signs are both small and big. They don’t mean that Obama will necessarily be chosen as his party’s candidate, let alone to the highest office in the land. But if he loses, he will have more to blame than his race.

For starters, take the numbers. Asked whether America is ready to elect a black man, Donna Brazile, the former campaign manager for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential bid, notes that “The national polls suggest we are prepared to elect a qualified woman or minority candidate.” For example, a Rasmussen poll

of likely Democratic voters this month found Clinton and Obama leading the field, with 22 and 21 per cent support respectively. An ABC News poll found 45 per cent of Democrats favour Clinton, with Obama at second place with 28 per cent. In that poll, 41 per cent of respondents said they didn’t really know enough about him, suggesting Obama has plenty of room to grow (or disappoint).

Until now, though, polls have been famously unre-

liable when it comes to black candidates. In 1989, when voters in the southern state of Virginia chose Douglas Wilder, a grandson of slaves, as the first elected black governor in U.S. history, he won by a third of a percentage point. And yet the exit polls on election day had suggested he was headed for a comfortable victory of some 10 full points—or 30 times what it actually turned out to be. When asked whether they had voted for the black guy, a lot of white voters simply lied upon leaving the voting booth. “When you ask people if they would be willing to vote for a minority candidate, 95 per cent say, ‘Yes, I’m not a racist,’ ” says Richard Oldendick, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina who specializes in voter attitudes. “If you ask the question whether they think other voters would, or whether the country is ready, it gets closer to 60 per cent who say yes. The truth is somewhere in between.”

But here is where Obama can take some comfort. In last November’s mid-term elections, 36-year-old black Democrat Harold Ford, Jr., narrowly lost a tight Senate race in Tennessee to his white Republican opponent. The contest received nationwide attention because Ford had been in a slight lead until the other side began running campaign commercials in which a sexy white woman asks Ford, a bachelor, to “call me.” (The ads were roundly attacked as racist.) But what is surely relevant is the fact that, in Ford’s case, the polls predicted the election results quite accurately. And that development was striking to the professionals who had warned of a black candidate’s tendency to be overrepresented in the polls. “I don’t know if we’re getting better as pollsters, or if people have become used to black candidates and feel they can give an honest opinion without being seen as racist,” says Oldendick.

That wasn’t the only bit of good news for Obama in the 2006 election. Gubernatorial races are perhaps more indicative than Senate contests about voter attitudes toward the


office of commander-inchief. A governor’s mansion often serves as a stepping stone to the White House; when people choose their governor, they are looking for an individual to govern them, not just a senator or congressman who will vote their way on the issues. And so it augurs well that, in November, Deval Patrick became governor of Massachusetts, the nation’s second elected black governor after Wilder. It’s significant because Patrick and Obama

share a background that makes them far different from earlier black candidates like Jackson and Sharpton. “I think America would elect a black president,” says Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland and a former deputy campaign manager for Jackson. “The question has always been, what kind of black president. I concluded when Jesse Jackson ran that he would never be president, neither would Al Sharpton, nor would anyone having a history coming out of the civil rights movement and still carrying those issues. America is uncomfortable with them.” By contrast, neither Patrick nor Obama have emerged from the street protests of the civil rights movement; rather, both came through Harvard Law School. Patrick became Bill Clinton’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, and held senior jobs at Texaco and Coca-Cola. Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review and went on to teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago and serve in the state senate. “I’ve done a lot of work on generational change among AfricanAmerican political leaders, and Barack Obama fits very well with the pattern I’ve seen,” says David Bositis, a senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a non-partisan Washington group that studies black issues. “The old generation of AfricanAmerican political leaders went to historically black colleges, many were centred in the black church, they were part of the civil rights movement, they had an agenda that was very much black-oriented, although some went beyond it. Many of those who follow Martin Luther King, Jr., became anti-war. In terms of running for president, the poor and minorities are not a good base.”

Patrick and Obama are different. “The new generation,” Bositis says, “have received elite educations and they are ambitious. If your

goal is to be a black politician whose constituency is going to be black, the highest you can aim for is the House of Representatives, and maybe you can rise high enough to become a committee chairman. But if you want to be governor, senator or president, you have to appeal to whites.” While Jackson’s presidential platform talked about reparations for black slaves, softening the war on drugs, a nuclear freeze and cutting defence spending, Patrick focused on health care, education and the environment. In the Senate, Obama’s main accomplishments have been on alternative fuels and stopping international trafficking in nuclear weapons. “To the extent that Obama’s issue positions on the war, social welfare, health, the economy, are more toward the centre, that’s what makes him a different candidate from ajesse Jackson,” says Oldendick.

While Obama is anti-war and generally considered left of centre in his party, he has also staked out some more conservative positions. In his bestselling book, The Audacity of Hope, he scolds Democrats for focusing their foreign policy attention on pulling out of Iraq and working with America’s allies. “The objectives favoured by liberals have merit. But they hardly constitute a coherent national security policy,” he writes.

OBAMA’S MIDDLE-GROUND POLITICS WILL have to endure the various ideological litmus tests of a Democratic primary. Obama himself acknowledges that “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.” So far, though, aggressive centrism is helping him transcend the race issue.

During the recent mid-term elections, Obama was in high demand to speak at rallies all over the country—but he wasn’t used, as Jackson often is, to turn out the black vote. He drew huge crowds in places like New Hampshire, a swing state where there are few black voters. In fact, a curious aspect of Obama-mania is that it is

primarily a white phenomenon. And it’s not just because his mother is white.

Ronald Walters, for one, says that whites favour Obama because he doesn’t appear to be asking them to make up lor historical wrongs. “He represents post-civil rights and post-racial politics,” Walters says. “He rejects that image in his book, but that’s what whites see in him. It gives them a level of comfort. He offers white voters a kind of absolution on the racial issue.” As Obama him-


self has written in his book, “I have witnessed a profound shift in race relations in my lifetime. I have felt it as surely as one feels the change in the temperature.” Yet he also notes, “Better isn’t good enough.”

For some, Obama’s racial complexity and exotic upbringing remain an untested variable. He spent his early years living in Indonesia with his mother and stepfather, where he attended both Christian and Muslim-dominated schools; his campaign has already had to deny insinuations that he studied at one of the extremist Islamic schools called madrasas. Throughout his political career, Obama has been criticized as not sharing the black experience because he is not a descendant of slaves and grew up in a white middleclass suburban family. Critics are already using derogatory labels like “Halfrican.” To some black commentators he lacks the “street cred” of even a white politician like John Edwards, who unabashedly sought black support when he announced his candidacy in New Orleans’s blighted Ninth Ward.

Still, Walters says Obama should be able to attract the black vote as well. “There is quite a bit of discussion about whether blacks would vote for him, partly because there are whites in the race who have also attracted AfricanAmerican support before—John Edwards and of course the Clintons,” he notes. “I think that if Obama does put forward an agenda that is attractive to the black community, then he will attract the lion’s share of the vote.” And in any political campaign, money talks, and Obama may get lucky in that regard. In what is expected to be the first billion-dollar presidential campaign, each serious candidate is going to have to raise $100 million (all figures in US$) by the end of this year to make a serious run (George W. Bush and John Kerry each spent well over $200 million on their

races in 2004). Clinton has $14 million left over from her cakewalk Senate race. Obama raised more than $16 million for his 2006 Senate run and has $800,000 left over. But he is already drawing top-drawer donors such as billionaire financierphilanthropist George Soros, who dropped $23 million on anti-Bush groups in the 2004 presidential election. Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg and David Geffen are organizing an Obama fundraiser.

As well, Obama has Oprah, the wealthiest woman in entertainment, who has given away $250 million of her $1.5-billion fortune to worthy causes, and used to back Hillary Rodham Clinton. The platform she offers could be awesome: her show is viewed by 49 million Americans weekly, and most of them are the golden soccer-mom demographic. If Obama needed a way to strike directly into Clinton’s base, and appeal to swing voters and Republicans, this is it. “Oprah is enormously popular in a way that transcends race. She is an icon to black women and white women alike,” says Democratic strategist Steven Rabinowitz. “Who is the Oprah public and are they a potential swing public that could help deliver the presidency? Absolutely.”

Her fawning show on Obama on Oct. 18 launched his book to the top of bestseller lists. When Oprah decided to build a school for girls in South Africa, it came complete with a beauty salon and yoga studio—who knows what she could do with a presidential campaign. Some of her fans have wanted her to run for president; she has told them to shut down their websites and support Obama instead. In an inter-

view with Obama, she gushed, “I don’t consider myself political and I seldom interview politicians. So when I decided to talk with you, people around me were like, ‘What’s happened to you?’ I said, T think this is beyond and above politics.’ It feels like something new.”

While individual political donations are limited to $2,100 under U.S. election laws, there are no limitations on Oprah using her stardom to campaign at rallies or headline fundraisers. Apart from the risk of alienating some of her audience, Oprah also has free rein to promote Obama on her show without having to give equal time to other candidates, under an exception that the Federal Election Commission makes for media outlets, says Craig Holman, a specialist in campaign finance law with the government watchdog group Public Citizen. She could also follow the Soros model and pay for advocacy by independent groups. As well, “Oprah can spend unlimited amounts of her own money in support of Obama as long as she does not coordinate her expenditures with the Obama campaign or the Democratic party,” says Holman.

AT ITS CORE, THE QUEST FORTHE PRESIDENCY is as much about process as personality. For any Democratic contender it boils down to two things: in the nomination campaign, the


early primary states that usually anoint a winner well ahead of the convention, and then, in the actual presidential race, the elusive swing states such as Ohio and Florida—where the Republicans held the White House by a thin margin in the last election.

First, the primaries. Iowa and New Hampshire are both largely white states, but already Obama is polling well there (though such early soundings need to be taken with a very large grain of salt). Polls of Iowa Democrats have placed him either tied with Edwards for the lead, or in second place. He has been neck-and-neck with Clinton or leading in New Hampshire, and is in second place behind her in Nevada, which has been added

as an early state this year.

The first state to weigh in on the Democratic nominee, Iowa, does not hold an ordinary primary election. Instead, Democrats attend so-called “caucuses,” where they gather in a room, usually in a community centre, school or a firehouse, and literally stand up for their candidates in public. The supporters of the most popular candidates in a caucus are then given the chance to cajole others to their

ranks. The process is time-consuming and fluid; only some 20 per cent of the party faithful attend, but they can seal a candidate’s fate. Because of its influential spot in the primary calendar, this small rural state is overrun by political activists and media at caucus time, and is accustomed to lavish courting by the candidates even in off-years.

Iowans value nothing more than personal face time with candidates, often in their own living rooms. A television and speech campaign doesn’t work, no matter how telegenic or lyrical the candidate. “The bottom line for Iowa is not the race or the sex of the candidates, but who builds the organization on the ground using real Iowans,” says David Redlawsk, a political scientist at the University of Iowa who specializes in voter behaviour. Howard Dean was considered the runaway front-runner heading into the 2004 caucuses, but his strategy of bringing in thousands of out-of-state volunteers to knock on doors didn’t go over well. At the moment, only Edwards, an Iowa darling, has a ground organization in the state.

The early primary in South Carolina may present another stumbling block for Obama.

Roughly half of the primary voters are black. But some predict that the local reality of a white Republican-dominated state will make Democrats who are desperate to retake the White House think twice about Obama. “There are going to be some black voters in South Carolina who think, a black person getting elected president just ain’t gonna happen, and they’re going to look for someone who will get elected,” says Bositis. Indeed, in a survey by the Los Angeles Times, several black leaders expressed that sentiment. “We in the South don’t believe America is ready to elect a black president,” Robert Ford, a black state senator from South Carolina who supports John Edwards, told the paper. On the other hand, the state threw its delegates behind native son Jesse Jackson in past years, and Jackson is backing Obama.

If Obama survives the primaries and takes the Democratic nomination, what about those swing states? Luckily for Obama, the people most likely to have a problem with his skin colour don’t tend to live there. There is little reason to believe race would be a limiting factor in places like Ohio or Colorado, where Obama was a big draw when he campaigned for candidates in 2006. (Says Bositis: “The places in the country where there is the most doubt about whether they would support an African American, it’s doubtful that Democrats are even going to compete in those places—namely in the South.”) There is one swing-state exception, though: voterrich Florida. “There are a lot of Latinos here, but given the large Cuban community they tend to be middle class and Republican,” says Sharon Wright Austin, a political scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “[The race question] could hurt him.”

Ultimately, if the United States is indeed ready to elect a black president, it may be because both the voters and the candidates have changed. “I use the term co-evolution—an ecosystem of two species evolving at the same time in ways that bring them together,” says Bositis. “I think white voters are more inclined to vote for a black candidate than they have in the past, and the black candidates who they potentially might be offered as a choice to vote for are more to their liking than in the past.”

But what about that measly record of electing blacks to the Senate? It may not be indicative of much. For one thing, only about half of the states in the union have large enough numbers of blacks to potentially influence voting outcomes (in total, African Americans make up only 13 per cent of the American population). There’s also the fact that only one-third of the Senate comes up for re-election in a given election year, which leaves very few seats up for grabs. Add to that the

propensity of incumbents to hold their seats not just for years, but decades, and the chances of anyone, let alone a black American, to be elected to the Senate are very low.

In the end, Obama’s biggest obstacle will likely be his lack of experience. Only in his third year in the Senate, and with no executive experience, he will have to prove that he has the ability to lead a nation currently embroiled in two wars. Some skeptics suggest that race may make that job harder.

“Barack Obama doesn’t have an established track record. That’s not uncommon for candidates, but for a black candidate that’s something people are going to focus on,” says Austin. “People are going to use it as an excuse because they don’t want to vote for a black person.” Nonetheless, Obama has shown he can win big. He took his Senate seat with 70 per cent of the vote—albeit thanks largely to the fact that his opponent left the race in a scandal, and his last-minute replacement was parachuted in from out of state. More instructive may be his performance in the Senate Democratic primary, where he faced multiple candidates and walked away with a majority of the vote. “Usually, if someone has five opponents, they are happy if they get 30 per cent of the vote,” says Bositis. “So that certainly is a sign that he had something going for him.”

No doubt Shirley Chisholm, who died in 2005, would be pleased to see her party battling between a woman and a black man. Of her symbolic 1972 candidacy, she said: “What I hope most is that now there will be others who will feel themselves as capable of running for high political office as any wealthy, good-looking white male.” M