LOS ANGELES — Political interests trump race. That's the hard lesson likely 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama will soon learn. Those who think black voters will automatically support one of their own need to think again. Recent history proves that point.
A survey in January 1996 showed that the so-called black president, Bill Clinton, nosed out Jesse Jackson and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in popularity among blacks. Eight years later, when Al Sharpton made his presidential foray in the South Carolina Democratic primary, he barely nudged out eventual Democratic presidential contender John Kerry among black voters. State and national black leaders put their muscle behind Senator Kerry or John Edwards.
In the 2006 midterm elections, Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, pro football great Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania, and Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele – all Republicans – banked heavily on getting black voter support to beat their white Democratic opponents in state races. They failed miserably.
Blacks were enraptured with President Clinton and have supported white Democrats for good reason. They believed these seasoned politicians would deliver on their promise to fight for jobs, education, and healthcare. And they either held office or were good bets to win. Interests and electability trumped color.
The same rules apply to Senator Obama. Blacks may puff their chests with pride at the prospect of him breaking racial barriers, but they'll still judge him on two crucial questions. Can he deliver on bread and butter issues? And can he win?
The second is critical. Many blacks are leery that he's a media-created flash in the pan, and will wilt under the campaign's intense glare. Most black voters desperately want to end Republican White House rule. But that doesn't mean they'll support just any Democrat. It's got to be a Democrat with whom they feel comfortable.
In the eyes of many blacks, Obama departs from past black presidential contenders such as Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun, and Messrs. Jackson and Sharpton. They were readily identifiable, urban-bred, African-Americans who spoke out boldly on civil rights, poverty, and economic injustice. On the other hand, the racially mixed, Harvard-trained Obama, as the so-called postracial candidate, has soft-pedaled these issues. It's no accident that his appeal among whites seems stronger so far than among blacks.
Hillary Clinton and Mr. Edwards come much closer to fitting the bill. Many blacks applaud Edwards for being virtually the only top white Democrat to speak candidly about racial problems in the 2004 presidential race, and for barnstorming the country afterward championing labor rights and demanding a new war on poverty. Senator Clinton, for her part, has a highly advantageous last name and husband, solid ties with black religious leaders and elected officials, and is personally admired by many blacks. In combined USA Today/Gallup polls conducted in the past three months, Clinton had a 39-to-31 edge over Obama among black Democrats and independents.
But the presidential contest is not just about who likes whom, or who's electable. It's also about having a proven record of performance. If Obama is judged on his record there won't be much to go on. Sure, his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was a buzz-creating stem-winder. But since then, has he rammed any meaningful legislation through the Senate, delivered a visionary foreign policy statement, or scored a diplomatic coup with a foreign leader? The brutal truth is that Obama is too new on the political scene, too untested, too politically nice, too liberal, and most of all, he's an African-American. That's just too many strikes for many blacks to seriously believe he has a real shot.
If Democrats made Obama their nominee, he'd face the GOP contender with a handicap of about 100 electoral votes. That's the tally of support he wouldn't get from Southern and border states. Such turf is still dominated by mostly white, conservative, male, pro-war, limited- government voters who are vehemently opposed to any political tilt to minorities and who are heavily influenced by ultra-conservative Bible Belt fundamentalism.
There's yet another reason why many blacks are skeptical about Obama. His ascendancy as a lawyer-politician represents a threat to the old-guard generation of black leaders who made the jump to politics from their work as preachers or as civil rights activists. Black leaders, such as Jackson – still an important bellwether – have been guarded in their praise for Obama. In time, they could warm up to him if – and this is a big if – they feel that Obama will fight the battles against discrimination and for economic justice.
Obama certainly represents a fresh face on the political scene and has lots of room to grow and become adept on the issues. If by some miracle the Democrats choose him as their standard-bearer, the majority of blacks would dutifully vote for him, not because he's black, but because he's a Democrat. Still, a presidential race leaves no time for on-the-job candidate training. Blacks want someone who can snatch back the White House from Republicans. And Obama isn't that someone.
• Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political analyst and social-issues commentator, is the author of "The Emerging Black GOP Majority."