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Black Voters are Obama's Catch 22

05/25/2011 12:35 pm ET

The Democrat who squirmed the longest on the hot seat during the Democratic presidential primary slog was not named Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. It's black South Carolina Democratic Congressman James Clyburn. The former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus for months was a kind of sort of Clinton supporter. The Obama tide in his home state changed that. Black voters backed Obama in near record numbers. That caused Clyburn to squirm and back pedal fast from Clinton.
But his backpedal didn't mean a quick flip flop to Obama. Clyburn still publicly played the role of the wait and see would be suitor to both candidates. That only increased the pressure on him to get off the fence and endorse Obama. Clyburn finally threw in the towel and backed Obama.
Clyburn is seen as more than just an indispensable Democratic power player. To top Democrats, much of the media, and a big swatch of the public, Clyburn is the bellwether of the black vote. As conventional wisdom has it black voters will make or break the fortunes of a Democratic presidential nominee.

It's easy to see why Obama might be tempted to think that. When he needed a surge early on in the campaign, he called on Oprah, and she delivered. She made a blatant racial pitch for blacks in the crucial South Carolina primary to vote for him, and they in turn delivered. Obama has done everything to avoid the tag of being the black presidential candidate since that would be the political kiss of death for him. The reality, though, is that the black vote is Obama's staple. Exit polls from 33 primaries where he and Clinton competed showed that his support from blacks has gotten even bigger. In primaries since Super Tuesday, he's gotten the votes of nearly nine in 10 black voters. Without the massive, and rock solid backing of black voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, states that he lost to Clinton, his defeat would have been even more crushing.

This is the Catch 22 for Obama. Despite Clyburn's backing and the increased numbers and enthusiasm of black voters for Obama, their votes weren't enough to put him over the top in the big states against Clinton; let alone to beat McCain in the general election. That's even truer now than it was at the start of Obama's primary slugfest with Clinton. The same exit polls that show that Obama does phenomenally well with black voters also show that he does abysmally with blue collar whites, rural voters, older middle income white women, and Latinos. They are also a vital part of the vote demographic. Without their backing no Democratic presidential candidate can win the White House. In exit polls in the must win battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, a significant percent of these Democrats thundered that if Obama is the candidate they will vote for McCain or stay home.

Democrats bank that if this turns out to be more than an angry idle threat they can offset loss of their votes with a full throttle press to get even greater numbers of blacks to the polls. This shaky assumption rests squarely on the myth that the black vote wins presidential elections. This myth has been tossed about for so long that it's taken on the proportion of a political urban legend.
In 2000, black voters made up nearly 11 percent of the overall voter. They gave the Democratic presidential contender Al Gore 90 percent of their vote. In 2004, black voters made up nearly 12 percent of the vote and gave Democratic presidential contender John Kerry 88 percent of the vote. Gore and Kerry lost.

In 2004, then presidential contender Howard Dean openly worried that Democrats could not beat Bush unless they got a bigger share of white male votes. He quipped that the Democrats had to court beer-guzzling white guys who wave the Confederate flag. That brought howls of protests from Dean's Democratic rivals and the charge that Dean was pandering to unreconstructed bigots to get more white votes in his column.

A chastised Dean got it right. He simply crunched the numbers and recognized that white males make up more than one-third of the electorate. In 2000, exit polling showed that while white women backed Bush over Gore by 3 percentage points, white men backed him by 27 percentage points. Four years later the margin was 26 points for Bush over Kerry among white males. And since Kerry made only a weak, half-hearted effort to court white male voters in the South, Bush got nearly seventy percent of the white male vote there, and a second sweep of the South and a second term.

Clyburn's endorsement of Obama is important and so are black voters. They have done more than any other group to help him bag the Democratic presidential nomination. The Catch 22 for him is that Clyburn's endorsement and their votes won't be nearly enough to bag the White House.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).

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