Hillary, Obama and the McCall Effect

Question: How seriously should we be taking Hillary Clinton’s apparent lead over Barack Obama among African American voters?

Certainly, the Clinton name is worth an awful lot among black voters, and Hillary has already moved to lock down some of the most influential members of the African-American political establishment.

But at first glance, it all seems at least slightly reminiscent of the New York governor’s race in 2002, when Andrew Cuomo — who also came from a well-known liberal family and had important friends in the African-American political firmament — was running against Carl McCall for the Democratic nomination and was actually shown leading among black voters in early polls. But by the primary election — even before Cuomo’s preemptive withdrawal — said voters lined up squarely behind McCall.

I asked a couple of longtime observers of minority politics about that analogy, and about how Hillary might prevent a similar hemorrhaging of support among African-American voters if Obama proves to be a credible candidate deep into primary season.

“For Carl McCall to have had any success in that race he would have had to appeal to an African-American base, and I think in many of the same ways you are going to see that situation with Senator Obama,” said Walter Fields, a political consultant and the vice president for government relations at the Community Service Society, a non-profit public policy research organization focused on poverty. “The challenge is that McCall had a longer relationship with the African-American community in New York than Senator Obama does with blacks around the country.”

“There will be some drift if he stays in the race,” Fields added. “Then there will be a second wave of black voters. The third wave is what you have to look at, if people move in large numbers to Obama because they see him as a viable option. That may be after Iowa and New Hampshire.”

David Bositis, a pollster and senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, had a similar take. “It is going to depend on the viability question, since the first major primaries are not going to involve many African Americans,” he said.

“If he is going to get that support he is going to have to show that is more than just what’s in the media, that there are voters voting for him and he would have to do that in new Hampshire or Iowa,” said Bositis. “And if you look at the polling right now, those places are wide open. And Hillary Clinton is not dominating New Hampshire.”

So Hillary has to prevent Obama from gathering steam. And that’s where things could get tricky. Said Fields:

“There is nothing to do to stop it and I think there is a danger in trying to stop it. You don’t want to offend the most loyal voting block in the Democratic Party. You don’t want to be seen as someone who is dismissing the candidate who is seen as the new emerging star, who also happens to be black. Then you run the risk going through a primary contest as the candidate who did their best to injure Obama’s chances. And then you have a real hard time in a general election when you need those black votes of securing that black support. I think what she should really do is run a very competitive race. And on those issues that are important to African Americans she needs to be clear where she stands.”

–Jason Horowitz