Most of us will never get the chance to write our own obituaries but this remains one of the few perks of candidates whose political careers are officially dead. As pundits conduct the equivalent of an autopsy after a loss (i.e. "We all know that campaign is dead, now let's decide what killed it") the candidate goes around trying to "set the record straight" which is usually code for: blame everybody else for his/her defeat. To his credit, Congressman Artur Davis has not done this, going to great lengths during our recent interview to take responsibility for his dramatic loss in last week's Alabama gubernatorial primary. But amidst much of the media postmortem of Davis' race, one major question has been left unanswered: Has President Obama's tumultuous first 500 days in office made it tougher for other black candidates to succeed?
Following President Obama's election in 2008 there was a measure of euphoria, bordering on hysteria among some, about the multitude of racial and social problems he would be able to solve by sheer virtue of being a black man in the White House. Would the nearly 50 percent dropout rate among young, black males in some cities be curbed overnight? Would the negative racial stereotypes of black men=thugs subside now that America had its own real-life Cosby Show taking place in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue everyday? Of course this thinking was ridiculous, but not entirely surprising. The president was supposed to be to America's 200 year-old racial problem what gastric bypass surgery is to a weight problem: a quick fix. But as any gastric bypass patient and surgeon will tell you, what may look like a quick fix to everyone else, is really a painful, complicated, battle for those most affected.
President Obama's election has without question had a positive impact on certain aspects of our country's racial dynamic. A study out of Vanderbilt University tracked the so-called "Obama Effect" on black test takers whose scores markedly improved during key moments of flattering coverage of then-candidate Obama during the 2008 campaign. According to the Vanderbilt analysis, "during the height of the Obama media frenzy, the performance gap between black and white Americans was effectively eliminated." Additionally the racially diverse cross section of young people who voted for him, and their attitudes on race, certainly bode well for our country.
But some of the hopes that accompanied his election have gone unrealized.
Despite some of the expectations that President Obama might open the floodgates for more successful campaigns by black candidates at the state and local level, since his election a number of high profile black candidates have floundered. In a sure sign that Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek is headed for defeat, it was just announced that powerhouse liberal political consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker (the firm of former Obama White House Communications Director Anita Dunn) has signed on to the Senate campaign of Republican turned Independent Governor Charlie Crist. Then there's William Thompson, who lost his bid to unseat New York billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg (a race in which the President's role, or lack thereof, remains controversial.) Presidential friend and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is in political freefall, as is Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (who a fellow political blogger once referred to as "the poor man's Barack Obama.") New York Governor David Paterson's political career was in such tatters that he didn't even bother running for the seat he inherited from Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Former Rep. Harold Ford (who was the 90's version of Obama before Obama came along) was run out of the New York Senate race before he even had a chance to kiss a baby. And then there's Artur Davis.
If any candidate was expected to have a shot it was Davis. A Harvard Law classmate of the President's, he had managed to remain a popular Congressman with racially diverse support in a deep Southern state. He spent part of his campaign for Governor with a thirty-point lead, before ultimately losing the Democratic primary last week by nearly the same margin. During my interview with Davis which can be found in its entirety here he was circumspect. "Ultimately we did not run a campaign that connected with voters and persuaded voters that I should be Governor." Though many critics have cited his vote against the historic health care bill (which according to reports the White House privately allowed him political cover on) Davis deems that analysis somewhat shortsighted. While he says the campaign may have "Lost our capacity to emotionally connect with the black community after the health care vote," he notes that after a temporary dip in his poll numbers immediately after the vote, he regained his lead, which makes his loss all the more curious.
Davis, who remains a friend of the President, was reluctant to discuss the role of race in his loss. He dismissed talk of a "Bradley Effect" along with any Jesse Jackson Effect. Jackson reached a new low with his Davis barb "You can't vote against health care and call yourself a black man." Yet Davis acknowledged that in some ways the President's shadow became an insurmountable obstacle, noting he heard from black voters in Alabama who said, "If whites in this state wouldn't even vote for Barack Obama for president why would they vote for you?" Not to mention that the President's standing with white voters, particularly rural voters (who Davis struggled with), and frankly all voters, has taken a dive in recent months. While it may not be fair that underrepresented groups, whether women or racial minorities, are often compared to one another, it is the unfortunate reality of being a minority candidate, a subject I have written about before.
While I cannot say definitively, without significant polling data to back it up that there is an Obama backlash afoot, the question bears asking. If for no other reason then we know that Democratic candidates nationally struggle when a Democratic president struggles, so does it not stand to reason that black candidates may struggle more as a black president struggles in the polls and in the eyes of the American people?
With his congressional career drawing to close, Davis is preparing to return to life as a private citizen, yet there remains one black candidate who owes his political success directly to the president; however it is the one candidate that the White House (or anyone for that matter) would probably not want to take credit for. It is Rod Blagojevich's going away gift to America, Roland Burris.
Talk about irony.
This post is republished courtesy of TheLoop21.com for which Goff is a political blogger.