Race Debate Complicates Obama and Clinton's Fight for African-American Voters

With race making headlines, Obama had to ensure he maintained support from the key demographic.

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Supporters cheer for Sen. Barack Obama at a rally in Houston.

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A year ago, the black vote was Hillary Clinton's to lose.

While Barack Obama was a gamble, Clinton was a sure bet. She was well known and popular among African-Americans. She was in an "interracial marriage," she joked, with America's "first black president," as Bill was famously dubbed by both Chris Rock and Toni Morrison. In a CNN poll conducted last April, Clinton was up by 17 points among black registered Democrats, and by October she had increased that margin to 24 points. Another survey from last fall showed 83 percent of likely black presidential primary voters holding a favorable view of Clinton, whereas 74 percent held the same view of Obama.

"A year ago, African-Americans knew two things," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "They liked Clinton, and they didn't believe Obama could be nominated." That produced strong support for Clinton.

But then Obama won in Iowa and South Carolina.

The circumstances swirling around the primary contests in these two states changed everything. In Iowa, a state where only 4 percent of caucus participants were black, according to entrance poll data, Obama beat Clinton by 9 points and former rival John Edwards by 8. This was a wake-up call for many black voters unsure about the electability of Obama. "I think after Iowa they thought he could win," said Larry Davis, dean, and director of the Center on Race and Social Problems at the University of Pittsburgh. "I think whites voting for him encouraged them to vote for him."

Bill Clinton, answering questions as part of an MTV forum for student journalists, explained it like this: "Iowa happened. The minute it became possible that he could be the nominee, he was going to win the lion's share of the African-American vote."

However, Bill Clinton's explanation didn't quite go far enough, according to experts. It was South Carolina that really cemented the switch.

"I do think the Iowa vote was important because Obama wasn't necessarily seen as a viable candidate until Iowa, but I also think that the Clintons' comments after the Iowa loss were a significant contributing factor," said David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an institution that researches public policy issues of interest to African-Americans. "I don't think Obama would have so completely captured the black vote if it weren't for the things the Clintons said after Iowa and New Hampshire and before the primary in South Carolina," Bositis added. Former President Clinton had classified Obama's claim of long-standing opposition to the Iraq war as a "fairy tale," and some felt Senator Clinton had diminished the role of Martin Luther King Jr. when she said, "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act." And then Clinton added, "It took a president to get it done."

To date, Obama has won the black vote in every contest, on average beating Clinton by 62 points, according to entrance and exit poll data. And experts say this support isn't going anywhere. "I think the demographics have hardened," Sabato says. "The primaries have become pretty predictable."

But race has become front and center this week. Obama had to walk a racial tightrope in the speech he gave Tuesday, on one hand condemning inflammatory comments made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and, on the other, explaining why he could not disown the reverend entirely.

The damage of Wright's remarks and the effectiveness of Obama's speech have yet to actually impact the race as voters won't go to the polls again until the Pennsylvania primary on April 22. In the most recent Gallup Poll that coincided with the release of the remarks, Clinton had pulled ahead of Obama among Democrats nationally. However, the day after Obama's speech, while Clinton was still ahead, the results were more favorable to the Illinois senator.

"In the event that she wins the nomination, she will need the black vote," said Davis. But the question is—would she get it? Bositis believes Clinton has dug herself into too big of a hole.