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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

January 30: Iowa, Obama and African-Americans

An old argument about Iowa popped back up this week, so I addressed it at New York:

Many Iowa Democrats are proud about their caucuses giving Barack Obama his first electoral win in 2008, in part because it showed Obama’s cross-racial and trans-partisan appeal (his campaign conspicuously turned out independent and even Republican voters in Iowa). In response to the perennial complaint about the state’s unrepresentative demographics, Iowans often tout their role in Obama’s rise as evidence of their broad-mindedness and lack of racism.

But these understandable claims have become conflated with the less defensible proposition — or “myth” as its critics rightly call it — that Iowa’s white Democrats “allowed” African-Americans in later states like South Carolina to support him. The myth has come back up in connection with dubious suggestions that whoever wins Iowa may suddenly experience a breakthrough with the black voters currently inclined to support Joe Biden. Astead Herndon has the story:

“It has become political lore, repeated on cable airwaves and by Democratic campaign consultants, even presidential candidates. In 2008, as the story goes, black voters were uncertain about Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy until he won the Iowa caucuses, after which they rallied around him over the onetime front-runner, Hillary Clinton …

“The persistence of the narrative that Iowa made Mr. Obama has long irritated some of his advisers, who said that this recollection from 2008 had led campaigns astray since then, discounted the agency of black voters and minimized the robust grass-roots strategy that Mr. Obama’s team undertook in the South …

“’Black voters aren’t waiting for white people to tell them what to do,’ [Obama pollster Cornell] Belcher said. ‘It’s racist. It’s racial paternalism.’”

I sympathize with Belcher’s complaint. As I noted in a post earlier this year on Kamala Harris’s failure to implement Obama’s 2008 strategy, the future president was already doing well with black voters nationally and in South Carolina before his Iowa win (unlike Kamala Harris at a similar juncture in this cycle):

“A late-July 2007 Pew survey of African-American Democrats showed Obama winning 34 percent — trailing Hillary Clinton’s 47 percent in that demographic but still within striking distance. By contrast, a late-July 2019 Quinnipiac poll had Harris at 7 percent among black voters, far behind Biden’s 55 percent …

“Obama was running very close to Clinton among black South Carolina Democrats in August 2007 (Clinton was at 44 percent, Obama at 41 percent, according to Insider Advantage). Meanwhile, a late-July 2019 Monmouth poll of black South Carolina Democrats showed Biden leading Harris by 51 percent to 12 percent …

“Obama had built a solid 54-21 lead over Clinton among South Carolina’s African-Americans by December 2007, before Iowa. Afterward, he did surge to his eventual 78-19 landslide among black voters in the Palmetto State, but he built that win over an extended period of time.”

Now is is not a myth — much less a racist myth — to say that his performance in Iowa gave Obama a significant boost among African-Americans in later states. Then, as now, black and white voters alike cared about electability, and nothing raises confidence in electability like winning, particularly if you are a freshman senator hoping to become the first African-American president of the United States.

If a 2020 Iowa winner gets a bounce in South Carolina — or New Hampshire, or Nevada, or anywhere else — it won’t be because voters elsewhere are looking to Iowans and yearning for enlightenment. It will be because prevailing in the first actual real-live test of the cycle is a good sign for a candidate hoping to go the distance and take on Donald Trump.

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