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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

“Mr. and Mrs. He-Can’t-Win”

Scott Helman of the Boston Globe reports from South Carolina on a wrinkle in the “electability” debate that especially affects Barack Obama: the strong belief of many African-Americans that their white fellow citizens will never elect a black president, at least any time soon.
Unsurprisingly, this feeling is particularly strong in the South, where such attractive African-American statewide candidates as North Carolina’s Harvey Gantt and Tennessee’s Harold Ford have succumbed to racially-charged negative campaigns.

“Personally, I don’t think he has a chance in hell,” said Leah Josey, a 20-year-old English major at Morris College, a Baptist school in Sumter. “All those white people? Come on.”
Such sentiments are prevalent among black South Carolinians, who are expected to make up nearly half of voters in the Democratic primary in January. Nearly a third of black voters surveyed in a statewide poll in September said white Americans would not vote for a black presidential candidate.

This helps explain why Obama is running no better than even with, and in many polls, well behind, Hillary Clinton among African-American Democrats nationally, and also why he’s running behind her in South Carolina. And I’d have to say that anecdotally, Helman’s report comports with what I’ve personally heard from some African-American elected officials who express negative opinions about Obama’s electibility not as a fear, but as a bedrock conviction.

“Obama’s chief opponents are ‘Mr. and Mrs. He-can’t-win,’ ” said I.S. Leevy Johnson, a lawyer and power broker in Columbia who is active in Obama’s campaign. “You hear it a lot because historically that has been the case.”

Now it’s true that this sort of ambivalent feeling is common towards “pioneer” candidates. Elizabeth Edwards has not-so-subtly appealed to the fears of some women that Hillary Clinton would actually set back the cause of gender equality in politics by losing a general election. And going back a while, many Catholic opinion-leaders in 1960 openly opposed John F. Kennedy’s presidential candidacy on grounds that it would become a lightning rod for anti-Catholic prejudices.
But in the end, an overwhelming majority of Catholics did vote for Kennedy, and the question is whether the excitement of a viable campaign would dispel electibility concerns about Clinton among women and Obama among African-Americans.
Fortunately for Obama, by the time the primary calendar rolls around to SC, the question will either be moot, or he will have already demonstrated strong support in the exceptionally pale electorates of Iowa and New Hampshire. Just as JFK’s landslide primary win over Hubert Humphrey in profoundly Protestant West Virginia in 1960 helped dispel fears that he couldn’t win Protestants, an Obama win in Iowa would be hard to ignore. In general, if the millstone of African-American skepticism about Obama is as strong as Helman’s report suggests, and if he can dispel it, then Obama’s “upside” against Clinton in the South and in other states with large African-American populations may be higher than many analysts realize.

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