African-American voters will help insure that Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama keeps his slight edge over Hillary Clinton -- for now. They will not help him beat John McCain if he eventually gets the Democratic nomination. Yet it's still a virtual article of political faith that a strong, united, and crusading black vote can tip the scale for a Democratic presidential candidate. This is a myth and it's risky business for Obama and the Democrats to believe that. It's easy to see why Obama might be tempted to think that. When Obama needed a surge early on in the campaign, he called on Oprah, and she delivered. She made a blatant racial pitch for blacks to in the crucial South Carolina primary to vote for him, and they did in near record numbers. That put him over the top and propelled his campaign.
With the black vote firmly in hand, that gave him the freedom to craft his hope and change message in broad, bland, and especially non-racial terms. The idea was to avoid any appearance of a Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton racial tilt. That would be the political kiss of death with many white voters.
But that didn't change the political reality that black votes still provided the decisive edge for Obama in key primary state wins. And even in his losses to Hillary Clinton in Ohio, California and Texas, black votes kept the race close. Those votes, though, will never be enough to put him over the top in the big states against Clinton, let alone against John McCain in the South and Border states.
The myth that the black vote wins presidential election has been bandied 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.
The Clinton wins in 1992 and 1996 also helped fuel the myth that black votes put Democrats in the White House. Clinton managed to pry four Southern states out of the GOP orbit but he did it by downplaying racial and social issues and stressing family values, tough defense, and a strong economy. He got lots of white votes, especially, white male votes, and that made the difference since he got the same percentage of black votes that Democrats traditionally got in prior elections.
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 livid Sharpton called Dean a turn coat Democrat and warned that heeding Dean would be a betrayal of black voters. They could have saved their breath. Kerry made only a weak, half-hearted effort to court white male voters in the South. Bush still got nearly seventy percent of the white male vote there, a second sweep of the South and a second term.
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.
A huge first red flag waved high for Obama and the Democrats in the recent Ohio Democratic primary that warns that they can't win without white votes. Clinton won a smash victory over Obama in large part with white votes. And even more ominously, blue collar lower income white voters roundly rejected Obama. In fact, nearly twenty percent of white voters defied political correctness and said that race would be a factor in their voting, presumably that meant they would not vote for an African-American candidate. That contrasted with national polls, which showed that more than 90 percent of whites said that race would not be a factor in determining their vote. The Ohio mini-white backlash to Obama doesn't bode well for the Democrats if he's the eventual nominee. No Republican or Democrat has won the White House in the past four decades without winning Ohio.
Black voters will cheer and dash to the polls en masse for Obama, but their votes won't be enough to put him in the White House. Despite the myth, they haven't put any other Democrat candidate in the White House either.
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).