And Valerie Bauerlein
Barack Obama's rising poll numbers among white voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are having an unexpected ripple effect: Some black voters are switching their allegiance from Hillary Clinton and lining up behind him too. That could mean a further tightening of the Democratic presidential race, especially in southern states where blacks make up as many as half of Democratic primary voters.
The evidence of movement is most clear in South Carolina, site of the first primary where black votes figure to make a significant impact. There, four polls now show Illinois Sen. Obama with a lead among African-American voters for the Jan. 26 vote. As a result, the race in South Carolina has tightened, with some polls calling it a dead heat.
Readings of the national black vote are less clear, but there are suggestions of movement there also. A Pew Research poll completed late last month shows New York Sen. Clinton and Obama virtually tied among black voters nationwide; two months ago Clinton held a 12 point advantage. But an ABC News/Washington Post poll this week shows Clinton still with a commanding lead among African-Americans nationwide.
"We're in a better position today than ever before, and a significant amount due to the movement of African-American voters," says Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign chairman.
But some analysts say Clinton may benefit because many of her black supporters are women and senior citizens who typically turn out for primaries in high numbers. "Hillary's voters are likely to vote," says Ron Lester, a Democratic pollster who has done extensive work polling African-Americans in the south. "That is going to help her hold her own."
The black vote is likely to be crucial in the cascade of primaries that follow Iowa and New Hampshire next year. Blacks make up almost half of Democratic primary voters in South Carolina and Georgia, one third in Virginia, a quarter in Tennessee. They also make up a fifth of primary voters in New York and 15 percent in Delaware and Ohio.
A big factor behind the rise black support for Obama in South Carolina appears to be his popularity among white voters, though he is also expanding his outreach to black voters and many of his views, especially his opposition to the Iraq war and support of social programs, resonate strongly with them.
"I see how [Obama's] charisma is among other races," says Ed Robinson, owner of Posh soul-food restaurant in downtown Florence, S.C. "He has been able to attract people from all races." Robinson said he strongly considered backing Clinton but has now decided to back Obama.
"A lot of African-Americans in the South have questions about whether a black candidate can be elected president," says David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which studies black issues. "Picking someone who is going to have a good chance to win is very much on their minds. If Obama shows he can win and that white voters can vote for him, there be a lot of African-Americans who will be lining up to support him."
Clinton initially built a big lead among black voters based in part on her husband's popularity. She also won a plethora of early endorsements from prominent black ministers and politicians including civil rights icon and Georgia Rep. John Lewis.
But now Obama is making a big push for the black vote. His political director in South Carolina is a 34-year-old popular black former college football star at the University of South Carolina who lists "old-school hip hop" as his favorite music on his MySpace Page. The Obama campaign began running TV commercials in the state in the last two weeks, but has been airing radio spots on 36 African-American radio stations for three months.
The campaign says it has won the endorsement of more than 100 black ministers""a response to Clinton's early endorsement by dozens of black ministers""and named "congregation captains" in churches to get out the vote. In South Carolina and elsewhere, Michelle Obama has emerged as a powerful advocate for her husband among blacks, especially among black women.
Obama is reaching out to blacks nationally as well. He recently took Rev. Al Sharpton, the former presidential candidate and black activist, out to a publicized lunch and he held a fundraiser at Harlem's Apollo Theater.
At the Apollo, black comedian Chris Rock rallied blacks to support Obama: "You'd be real embarrassed if he won and you wasn't down with it. You'd say, 'aw man, I can't call him now. I had that white lady. What was I thinking?'"
Obama has also benefited from a storm of publicity surrounding his rise in the Iowa polls and his appearance with Oprah Winfrey. His appearance with Winfrey in South Carolina drew more than 20,000 people, making it the largest political event in the state's history.
Nationally, far more African Americans cite Obama (51 percent) than Clinton (27 percent) as the candidate they have heard the most about recently, according to a poll released yesterday by Pew Research. In November, these figures were roughly the reverse, with 50% naming Clinton and 15 percent Obama. Whites were also more likely to name Obama this month compared with last month, but the increase was not as great &
23 percent this month up from 9% in November.
Billy D. Williams, a retired African-American interior decorator in South Carolina, supported Bill Clinton twice for president but says he is supporting Obama now because "It's time for a change. I'm not talking about a change like the Republicans slap on us, but I'm talking about a real change."
He says Obama's support of education is critical, because the predominantly black schools in rural eastern South Carolina are failing.
Williams says he sees a division between young black voters and politicians and the older blacks who are veterans of the civil rights era. The older generation is generally with Clinton. The younger voters are with Obama, he says.
Obama's efforts to woo black voters could create challenges for a candidate who has so far minimized the issue of race.
Blacks begin to believe in Obama
And Valerie Bauerlein