Congressman Charlie Rangel says that he encouraged Barack Obama to run and thinks he “can become a hero in the black community.” Former New York State Comptroller Carl McCall says that he would “discount” recent suggestions that Mr. Obama could ever be considered “disconnected from the black community,” and warned that “it would be a mistake if Hillary decided to attack him.”
Mr. Rangel and Mr. McCall, it should be mentioned, have publicly pledged their support in 2008 to Hillary Clinton.
Mr. Obama’s supporters in the African-American political firmament, not surprisingly, are that much more emphatic about his appeal to black voters.
“I think he has the right stuff,” said the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who told The Observer this week that, after considering various other candidates, he planned to support Mr. Obama. “He has my vote.”
“By the time primaries roll around and significant black-voter populations weigh in, Senator Obama will get the lion’s share of the black vote,” said Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama, also an Obama supporter. “The fact of the matter is that Obama offers this country the chance to transform itself overnight with his election to the Presidency.”
It’s hard to imagine, given such statements, that there are serious questions about whether Mr. Obama is black enough to earn the support of African-American voters—who constitute an estimated 20 percent of the Democratic electorate nationally—or whether his ties to the black community are strong enough to overcome those of the Clintons.
So how to explain the Washington Post story entitled “Obama’s Appeal to Blacks Remains an Open Question,” which explored the idea that by broadening his “multiracial message,” Mr. Obama might alienate black voters? Or the piece in The New York Times shortly afterward headlined “So Far, Obama Can’t Take Black Vote for Granted,” in which black voters and columnists argued that Mr. Obama’s heritage severed him from the historical and cultural experiences that defined them as black Americans?
At this early stage in the nascent Presidential contest, Mrs. Clinton does indeed appear to be the overwhelming choice of black voters. (Or, at least, to possess the name that most of them recognize.) Last month, an ABC News–Washington Post poll of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents showed her with a significant advantage among African-Americans—60 percent to 20 percent—over Mr. Obama.
The Clinton campaign has also worked quickly to lock down the support of the most influential members of the black political establishment, lining up the likes of Mr. Rangel and operatives like former D.N.C. co-chair Bill Lynch; and Mrs. Clinton has gone on a working vacation with her husband, according to The Politico, to visit the Anguilla home of Robert Johnson, the politically influential billionaire businessman and founder of Black Entertainment Television. Mrs. Clinton has also brought on as her black outreach director Minyon Moore, a former political director in the Clinton White House who oversaw minority outreach for John Kerry’s 2004 campaign and briefly advised Mr. Obama.
Some of Mrs. Clinton’s surrogates have aggressively promoted the notion of Mrs. Clinton’s uniquely strong appeal to black voters. Mr. Moore, for example, suggested that Mr. Obama was a favorite son of Illinois, his home state, but that it was Mrs. Clinton who enjoyed an advantage among black voters nationwide.
“It’s not a hard sell for her,” Ms. Moore said.
But some of Mrs. Clinton’s other supporters seem less certain about that. Mr. Rangel said that while the 45-year-old junior Senator from Illinois had yet to prove himself to black voters as the Clintons had done, he also said, “If anyone can prove they are better than Hillary Clinton, you can bet your life they are going to get an edge if they are black.”
And he patently rejected the notion that Mr. Obama’s background would make it tougher for him to connect with black voters, expressing bewilderment at the comparison of a “non-African-American as opposed to an African African-American.”
The Reverend Al Sharpton, who is undecided, said that Mr. Obama “certainly has all of the right stuff.”
In an interview, Mr. Sharpton seemed more comfortable—and certainly more familiar—with Mrs. Clinton, with whom he has had extensive contact since she came to New York to run for Senate. Last week, for example, Mr. Sharpton said she called into his radio show to wish him and his program a happy anniversary.
“She’s got her antennae up, and I haven’t come anywhere near endorsing her,” said Mr. Sharpton. “It just goes to show me that, when you start getting people making calls, that even Obama doesn’t make, she intends to compete for this vote.”
Later, Sharpton spoke about Mrs. Clinton and said that “one of the strengths she has is that she has built relationships. You don’t think her husband is going to be on the phone, talking to black ministers and black leaders, and going to black congregations?” Mr. Obama, he added, “has all of the right stuff, but he has to connect. It’s like having electricity: If somebody doesn’t put the light on, it doesn’t matter that it’s in the walls—you’re still in the dark.”
While Mr. Sharpton repeatedly said that he and Mr. Obama were from the same generation, they may represent two distinctly different mind-sets. Mr. Sharpton—who is contemplating a Presidential run of his own—is clearly partial to candidates closely identified with the civil-rights movement, like himself and Mr. Jackson.
For now, the contest between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama for black support is almost exclusively for the loyalties of the sorts of operatives, leaders and opinion-makers who can influence voters once primary season is underway in earnest.
Mr. Jackson, who got more votes than any other African-American Presidential candidate when he ran in 1984 and 1988, will be a meaningful addition to the list of supporters for Mr. Obama. (He had indicated last month to CNN that his “inclinations” were toward Mr. Obama, but according to the campaign, had never explicitly pledged his support.)
But again, Mrs. Clinton—on the strength of her own popularity with black voters and that of her husband—must still be considered far ahead in the category of support from the black political elite.
The real questions about appeal to a broader audience of black voters will be answered closer to the end of this year, when primary voters focus on the race and make up their minds in large numbers about whom to support. Much of that will depend on Mr. Obama’s ability to withstand the intense scrutiny he’ll be in for in the coming months, and to prove that he is viable over the long term.
In his interview with The Observer, Mr. Jackson explained Mr. Obama’s challenge by saying: “He is greatly admired, and the question is how to close the gap between being admired and being followed.”
At the same time, he said that questions about Mr. Obama’s background and ability to connect with African-Americans amounted to “a cheap shot. If you are going to tackle him, tackle him with substance, not on trivia.”
But the question of authenticity is only part of the equation. Age may also be a determining factor.
Mr. Davis, who is 39 years old—and who faced his own questions when he ran about whether he was “black enough” to represent his district—said he was confident that black politicians born after 1960 or 1965 had a greater appreciation of people’s abilities to reach across racial lines.
“The group of politicians whose experience is longer-running have a lot of doubts about the country’s willingness to elect a black, so they don’t want to waste their vote,” said Mr. Davis. “They don’t want to buck someone who they think is going to win. A lot of my colleagues in the Congress say privately on the floor, ‘Well, I like Obama, but Hillary is going to win. We are going to have to deal with her.’”
Mr. McCall, who is 71, said, “I think it could very well be generational—that people like myself, who are older and more established and have these relationships, will stay with the people that we know. Whereas younger people, who don’t have these relationships, will say that this fellow seems to be an outsider too—and so, therefore, they are attracted to him.”
Beyond considerations of age, it may be something more visceral that determines whether black voters ultimately rally to Mr. Obama.
Mr. McCall’s own personal experience may be telling in that regard. In 2002, he stood to be the first black Democratic nominee for Governor of New York. In his way was Andrew Cuomo, who benefited from a famous liberal name, lots of media hype, and a series of carefully cultivated connections with iconic minority families with surnames like King, Clayton Powell and Jackson.
In the early going, Mr. Cuomo’s campaign went so far as to peddle the idea that he might win a majority of the African-American vote in New York. But as the election got closer—as it became clear that Mr. McCall had the chance to make political history—Mr. Cuomo’s black support defected en masse.
Asked if he saw anything analogous in the situation of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, Mr. McCall answered by saying that in the end, it is the leaders who can end up following their constituents, not the other way around.
“I think people do move around on elections, depending on how things go,” said Mr. McCall. “It would depend on what is happening with the black masses. If there is overwhelming support from the bottom up, leaders have to pay attention to that.”
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