Saturday, February 02, 2008

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The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House

Super Tuesday Answers Some Questions But Raises More for Clinton and Obama
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The odds are that Democratic presidential arch rivals Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton will know no more about which of the two will be the party’s standard bearer the day after Super Tuesday than they did when the day started. The early talk about the “inevitability” of Hillary’s march to the Democratic nomination has long since ceased. And any talk about Obama’s inevitability, despite his rock star size crowds, poll surge and high profile endorsements, is just as nonsensical and wishful thinking. Obama will win some of the 15 Democratic state primaries and seven caucuses and one in American Samoa and Clinton will win some others. In the biggest and most crucial delegate rich state of California, the delegates are parceled out proportionally, so both Clinton and Obama will get their share.

But even with no Clinton or Obama knockout punch on Super Tuesday, the day will still answer some questions while raising a couple of large questions for which ever one grabs the top Democratic prize. The first question for Obama is will white voters en masse back an African-American candidate. Nearly every white voter in every poll profusely swears that they are color blind, and many back pat Obama, and say they will vote solely on the basis of competence, qualification and vision. They’ve said the same thing in head to head contests between black and white candidates in past elections and then once in the privacy of the voting booth done just the reverse. The result: the black candidate has gone down to flaming defeat.
But Obama’s race neutral change pitch has had earth rattling political reverb and he will likely get a significant number of white votes, particularly from younger voters. That will in part bury the Bradley effect and that’s the penchant for many white voters to dupe pollsters and interviewers about their feelings on race. At least that is, bury it in the primaries where his opponent is a woman with towering negatives with many voters. The questions for Clinton on the gender side is will male voters in big numbers back her. In some polls more than half of male voters say they wouldn’t vote for her, and are even less charitable toward the notion of a woman president than a black president.

A question and a worry for Obama is can he win a big number of Hispanic voters over. That’s only an issue in part because of the tensions and conflicts that have marred relations between blacks and Hispanics in some places, and in greater part because of the long standing ties, heartfelt affection, and political court by the Clintons of Latinos. His success at chipping away some of Clinton’s Latino firewall in California and the Western states where Hispanic voters make up ten to twenty percent of the vote could be a deal maker or breaker in his drive to the nomination and beyond.

The question for both is: Do Americans really want the change that they say they want. Obama is betting the political bank they do and even Hillary has done everything she can to counter the charge that she’s old guard politics and that she is just a much as a change maker as Obama. Another question for both is how big the issue of the Iraq war still is to voters. Obama has pushed hard to sell himself as the only top tier candidate that opposed the war from the start, and that Hillary at least initially backed it. But polls now show that the war with the appearance of stabilization and the military surge in Iraq is not the top campaign issue it once was.

The last daunting question for the Democrats is how to keep the momentum going after Super Tuesday for the months up to the convention in August and make sure the muddled outcome of Super Tuesday doesn’t split the Democrats into two warring and irreconcilable factions. That would spell doom for the party in the fall.

The Republicans don’t have to answer that question. Ten of the Republican primaries are winner take all affairs. If one candidate, and from the big time endorsements that he’s gotten and the poll numbers, that candidate is likely to be John McCain. He almost certainly will emerge with a commanding lead over Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee in the number of delegates needed for the GOP nomination. He will have six months to do internal fence mending, unite the warring and wavering GOP core factions, pile up key endorsements, massage, streamline, and sharpen the party’s message, further bulge his campaign war chest, and further distance himself from Bush’s unpopularity. That guarantees the most important thing of all: a united Republican Party without the albatross of the Bush legacy.

Super Tuesday will answer questions for the Republicans. And raise more questions for the Democrats. That makes Super Tuesday much less super than Obama or Clinton would like.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).