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How Much Will the ’08 Race Turn on Race?

During the past three weeks, three different African-American political insiders have commented to me that I have mistakenly failed to discuss “race” when talking about Sen. Barack Obama’s prospects for 2008. [IMGCAP(1)]

They all thought that the Illinois Democrat’s race is an impossible burden for him and makes him unelectable in the general election even if he were to win the Democratic nomination.

It’s true, I think, that many of us who write about politics — and as a group we are overwhelmingly white — have concluded that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R) religion is a greater impediment to his presidential hopes than is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) gender or Obama’s race.

That’s been my assumption for months, in part because national public opinion surveys have shown that more Americans say they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon than for a woman or an African-American, and in part because the nature of the presidential nominating process elevates the importance of certain states and of certain demographic groups in those key states.

After all, if evangelical Christians prove to be unwilling to support a Mormon, it’s hard to see how Romney can do well in Iowa or South Carolina, two key early tests for the GOP nomination. And if he flops there, he probably can’t be nominated, let alone elected president.

But some in the black community remain deeply skeptical about Obama’s electability. Their view is simple: Whether those being surveyed about their willingness to vote for an African-American are deceiving themselves or intentionally misleading pollsters, a lot of white voters won’t vote for a black nominee.

There is, of course, something to this view. Political observers long ago concluded that African-American candidates often underperform among undecided voters, and polling in past races has exaggerated the strength of some black candidates.

But after re-examining my assumptions, talking to some thoughtful political veterans and considering the data, I remain convinced that Obama’s race is not an insurmountable problem for him.

First, let’s stipulate that there are still some people in this country who won’t vote for an African-American for any office. Second, let’s agree that there are plenty of states that a Democrat, white or black, is not going to carry in the 2008 presidential race. And third, let’s also note that race tends to be more of an issue in states with large black populations, and that happens to be in Southern states that no Democrat will win.

The question then is whether Obama can carry enough white voters in enough Democratic or politically competitive states to win 270 electoral votes. I think it’s possible. He wouldn’t need to carry South Carolina or Oklahoma or even Louisiana. He might need some combination of Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and/or Ohio — all states that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) lost in 2004 — but he wouldn’t need to carry a Deep South state or a bastion of Republicanism.

Ten African-Americans in the House, all Democrats, currently represent majority white districts, including two each in Florida, Georgia and Missouri. In addition, Julia Carson of Indiana, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Mel Watt of North Carolina and Gwen Moore of Wisconsin all represent majority white districts. Ellison’s district is only 10 percent black, while Carson’s is 26 percent and Moore’s is 28 percent.

Colorado has had two African-American lieutenant governors over the past 40 years, and in the late 1990s it had two black statewide officials at the same time (both Republicans).

African-American Thurbert Baker (D) has been elected and re-elected as Georgia’s attorney general, and Michael Thurmond has been elected twice as the state’s commissioner of labor. Baker ran far ahead of then-Sen. Max Cleland (D) and then-Gov. Roy Barnes (D) when each was going down to defeat in 2002. Republicans nominated African-Americans for governor last year in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts elected an African-American to the state’s top job.

For the moment, I have more concerns about Obama’s ability to win black support for the Democratic nomination than I do about his ability to get elected if nominated, especially since Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) have appeal in that community.

“Older African-Americans are more pessimistic about what the prospects are for black candidates,” said David Bositis, a senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and one of the most thoughtful and well-informed students of black political behavior and public opinion. That means they are likely to doubt Obama’s electability in 2008.

But what happens if Obama starts winning primaries? “If Obama comes out of Iowa and New Hampshire looking like a winner, there will be a substantial move of support to him in the African-American community,” Bositis predicted.

We all know that the Illinois Senator has considerable personal appeal, and white voters are likely to react far more favorably to him than to African-American political figures such as the Revs. Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. I believe he is electable under the right circumstances, which makes him no different than any other politician. That means he will win or lose because of his record, his campaign and his performance as a candidate.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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