If the Democrats choose Sen. Barack Obama to be their presidential nominee in 2008, will his skin color and his name cost him enough votes to lose the election?
Signaling that he knows this worry is on some Democrats’ minds, Obama addressed the issues of skin color and identity during his tour of New Hampshire last weekend.
Obama included a line in his speech in Portsmouth, N.H. which he didn’t use in speeches I saw on the campaign trail in Minnesota and Pennsylvania in October.
He recalled Sunday that when he successfully ran for the Senate in Illinois two years ago, he was well-received in downstate Cairo, Ill., a city which had been racially segregated in the late 1960s and which used to have a white separatist White Citizens’ Council.
“Southern Illinois is the South,” Obama explained to an audience of Yankees in Portsmouth, N.H. “It’s closer to Little Rock or Memphis than it is to Chicago.”
In the 1960s, Cairo was “the site of some of the worst racial violence of any place in the nation, as bad as anything going on in Mississippi or Alabama,” Obama said.
Some Illinois Democrats, he recalled, were worried in 2004 that a black candidate from Chicago named Obama was “not going to sell downstate.”
'A black guy born in Hawaii'
He said if somebody had told Illinois Democrats 30 years ago that some day “a black guy born in Hawaii with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, named Barack Obama” would be welcomed in southern Illinois, “nobody would have believed” it possible.
It is true that in the 2004 election Obama did carry some traditionally Republican counties in southern Illinois which President Bush also won.
Cairo is located in Democratic-leaning Alexander County. There Obama got 66 percent of the vote, compared to 52 percent for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
But there is one problem with Obama’s suggestion that his 2004 victory proves that he can win in “southern” places which once were racially segregated.
In 2004 the Republican Senate candidate in Illinois, Jack Ryan, was forced out of the race due to tawdry details of his divorce being made public. With only three months until Election Day, the Republican Party in Illinois substituted Alan Keyes, the social conservative orator who wasn’t even living in Illinois at the time.
Keyes’s conservative views and eccentric persona proved to be unpalatable to Illinois voters: he got only 27 percent of the vote.
Keyes, by the way, is also an African-American. So Obama did not prove in 2004 that he can defeat a white candidate in a general election.
Assessing Harold Ford's loss
In New Hampshire last weekend Obama also made a point of arguing that “I don’t think Harold Ford lost because of his race.”
Ford, an African-American, was the Democratic Senate candidate in Tennessee who was defeated by Republican Bob Corker.
“I thought that the Harold Ford election showed enormous progress. Something that hasn’t been noted is the fact that Harold Ford did better among white voters than the polls would have indicated,” said Obama.
He noted that when black candidates Doug Wilder and Tom Bradley ran for governor of Virginia in 1989 and California in 1982, respectively, pre-election polls predicted that each would get a higher share of white voters than they in fact won on Election Day.
Ford “actually surpassed what the polls would have indicated. That, I think, points to the progress we have made,” Obama told reporters Sunday.
One school of thought among Democrats holds that Obama’s racial identity won’t matter.
Veteran New Hampshire Democratic activist Mary Rauh who was at Obama’s book-signing in Portsmouth last weekend, said of the racial issue, “I don’t think it’s enough of a burden with enough people to matter; and I think the converse may be true.”
Michael Fauntroy, who teaches political science at George Mason University in Virginia and is the author of the new book, Republicans and the Black Vote, said, “In the wider American society, there are some African-Americans, Michael Jordan for example, who are seen as transcending race and, for lack of better phrase, ‘don’t scare white people.’”
Obama fits in that category, he said.
Apart from the color of skin, Obama also is distinguished by his name. Republican operative Ed Rogers recently caused a stir on MSNBC’s Hardball by mentioning Obama’s middle name, “Hussein.”
In every speech Obama brings up his membership in the United Church of Christ. He explains that he borrowed the title of his book “the audacity of hope” from his UCC pastor in Chicago. Could he be doing this partly to dispel any mistaken notion some people might have that he’s a Muslim?
Yes, said Fauntroy, adding, “The United Church of Christ is among the more liberal churches in America. Obama is saying that he’s a member of that church to make it known that he’s a Christian. And he is also sending a message to Democrats and leftward people that his policies are guided by a leftward interpretation of faith.”
Obama’s race could be an advantage as much as a hindrance.
There is some evidence a black candidate on the ballot increases black voter turnout.
After Jesse Jackson mobilized black voters with his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns, an increase in black turnout helped elect black mayors in Denver, Dallas, Seattle and Baltimore.
Effect on black voter turnout
If he were the first major-party African-American presidential candidate, Obama could increase black Democratic turnout in states such as Missouri, Tennessee, Ohio, and Virginia, all of which have significant black populations and all of which Bush carried in 2004.
In theory, Obama could put in play a few states that haven’t been competitive for Democrats in the last two presidential elections.
“If Obama were the presidential nominee, it would undoubtedly push up black turnout in many states, the question is how much?” asked University of Maryland political scientist Tom Schaller, the author of the new book "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South".
“In 2004, according to Census estimates, blacks in the South were 17.9 percent of age-eligible voters and 17.9 percent of actual voters," Schaller said. "Blacks actually turn out at higher rates than whites of comparable demographic backgrounds. And that means that black turnout is already relatively high in the blackest region of the country.”
Schaller pointed out that “Obama's candidacy could also increase white voter turnout as a counterbalance. Poor whites became mobilized after the civil rights movement precisely to counterbalance the then-unprecedented levels of black participation.”
As Obama acknowledges, his racial identity will be a factor, if he runs for president. How decisive a factor is in the hands of the voters.