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Could Black Voters Trip Up Obama?

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With Barack Obama gaining strength in Iowa and New Hampshire, it is increasingly possible that he could win the first two states, leaving Hillary Clinton little option but to come first in South Carolina to credibly stay in the race. A year ago, many assumed that Obama would comfortably win the state, where about half of the primary voters are African-American. That conjecture may yet come to pass, but the patronizing premise it was based on (that black voters would flock to Obama) is obviously flawed.

So flawed, in fact, that Clinton's lead in South Carolina has grown over the past few months. This could not be happening without a high number of black voters in the state saying they intend to vote for her, although no conclusive polling is available for African-Americans in South Carolina or elsewhere.

Whatever polling has been done is unreliable, mostly because samples are too small to be of any significance. In July, for instance, CNN polled 153 black voters in South Carolina and concluded that Clinton was leading by 16 points in that group, within the margin of error (!). A recent national poll didn't even ask black voters for their intentions at the ballot, but measured favorability ratings. Clinton was very slightly ahead.

At the very least, it is pretty clear Obama isn't way ahead among black voters, and of all the things expected to trip him up, this was not at the top of the list. But a Clinton win in South Carolina after a hypothetical two wins by Obama in Iowa and New Hampshire, is exactly what the New York Senator would need to be back on track. And neither candidate will end up first in South Carolina without a significant share, probaly the majority, of African-American votes.

This year, as usual, well-polled fault lines exist among Democratic primary voters, foremost gender, but also class, education and area (urban, suburban and rural), and these differences exist among black voters, even though the data is more anecdotal. Conventional wisdom is that African-American women will be the deciding factor, at least in South Carolina. And if they mostly vote for Clinton, they could fatally derail the Obama candidacy. Somewhat ironically, if Obama wins overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire, it will be because a significant number of white women vote for him rather than for Clinton.

In the meanwhile, there seems to be a narrowing of the race in favor of Obama in South Carolina, as there is nationally, but his campaign must be reflecting on the fact that wavering black voters may well become the biggest threat to its candidate. Michelle Obama may underestimate the power of the Clinton name among some African-American voters when she says that "black America will wake up" and vote for her husband. Then again, she must be as intrigued as the rest of us that the Clintons and their allies can get away with calling her husband "a very well-spoken young man" who "doesn't have Hillary or Bill Clinton's track record in [the black] community." And that the Clinton campaign doesn't "see it as a hard battle for her" to win African-American votes.

It may well be that something about Obama, his positions and his track record won't appeal to all, or even a majority of African-American voters, but surely it is at least as inappropriate for Clinton to take their vote for granted as it is for Obama to do so.

As for the Clinton endorsements from the majority of Obama's colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus and from the old political guard, a Clinton supporter says it best: "This is all about loyalty and the strength of relationships that the Clintons have engendered over the years." Yes, you have to give it to the Clintons: they know how to accumulate I.O.U.'s and they know how to strong-arm. Whether the endorsements of Clinton by John Lewis and Ron Dellums, for instance, will trump that of Oprah Winfrey, who will be campaigning for Obama in South Carolina this week, is an open question.

There is every reason to believe that if Obama wins Iowa and New Hampshire, all voters, including African-Americans, will take notice. Under that scenario, there is also every reason to believe that the Clinton machine would move into South Carolina with an aggressiveness that would make George W. Bush's 2000 slashing and burning of John McCain in that state look tame. At that point, maybe the sight of a take-no-hostage campaign by America's first black president and his spousal successor-to-be against the prospective second black president will put a welcome end to the fetishization of the Clintons, and Michelle Obama's prediction will come true.