WASHINGTON — Sen. Barack Obama's dramatic rise in support among African-Americans signals a shift in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination that is larger than just the black vote. Overall, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is still on top, but her lead is shrinking. And polls show Senator Obama of Illinois has more room for growth than she does, because of her high negatives.
In short, if Senator Clinton of New York thought the primaries would result in her coronation as the Democratic nominee, she should think again.
"We have a real horserace," says John Zogby, an independent pollster whose latest data show that Obama leads Clinton among black Democratic voters 36 percent to 27 percent.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday showed a similar trend: Obama leads Clinton among black Democratic voters 44 to 30. In both December and January, the Post/ABC poll had Clinton beating Obama among African-Americans 60 to 20. Overall, the latest Post/ABC poll shows Clinton beating Obama 36 to 24, down from a 41-17 split in January. The Post attributes the gains of Obama, who is black, to his rise in support among African-Americans.
Of course, it's early; the first caucuses and primaries are almost 11 months away. But Obama has the momentum and buzz, and is drawing phenomenal crowds. Last Friday, 20,000 people came to see him speak in Austin, Texas. Between 15,000 and 17,000 people showed up in frigid temperatures for his announcement speech Feb. 10 in Springfield, Ill.
Analysts say Obama's bounce in the polls is due in part to his formal announcement, which has led growing numbers of voters to tune in to who he is and what he is saying. But, says Mr. Zogby, Clinton is losing some of her luster for other reasons: First is her refusal to apologize for her vote in 2002 that gave President Bush a green light to launch the Iraq war. Democratic activists – those most likely to show up in primaries and caucuses – are more in sync with Obama, who has opposed the war from the beginning.
Second, Clinton faces questions about electability in the general election. Obama also faces such questions, but there is firmer opposition to her candidacy in the electorate than there is against Obama.
"Her third problem is that she has the misfortune of running against Jack and Bobby in one year," says Zogby, referring to President Kennedy and his brother Bobby, in a loose comparison to Obama and the third top contender in the Democratic race, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. "They are not to be taken lightly at all. As we see, Barack in particular right now is cutting into a very solid Clinton constituency."
Indeed, the Clinton camp had been counting on holding onto the rock-solid support among African-Americans for Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton. Initially, some blacks had expressed reservations about supporting Obama, citing concerns about his own electability in a country with persistent racial issues.
But in dramatic fashion, some black Democrats are now changing their allegiance. In the primaries, the black vote is crucial: Nationwide, one-fourth of primary voters are black, and in some of the early primary states, that number rises much higher. The very first nominating states – Iowa and New Hampshire – have few minority voters, but in South Carolina, the second state to hold a primary, the Democratic electorate is 47 percent black. Many other states are considering holding their primaries early, and the African-American vote could be key in those as well.
"New York, Illinois, and New Jersey are all talking about moving up, and they all have significant black populations," says David Bositis, an expert on the black vote at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.
Then there's the Edwards factor. Former Senator Edwards drew strong support in South Carolina when he ran for president four years ago, and could cause problems for Clinton and Obama in 2008. In this cycle, Edwards has carved out strong support in particular among union members and the working class.
"There's no doubt that Edwards is the wild card here," says Ron Lester, a black Democratic pollster not affiliated with any 2008 candidates.
In a way, Edwards could save Clinton from a head-to-head matchup against Obama. In a three-way nomination race, Clinton may well successfully divide and conquer the other two. But if it's head to head against Obama, Clinton may find that her advantage in political experience and organization is not enough. Already, Obama is tapping into the big Democratic money centers – Hollywood and New York – that Clinton may have assumed that she would rule. Obama is also beating Clinton with the youth vote – a constituency notorious for low turnout, but the Iraq war may keep turnout higher than usual this time.
The next faceoff between Clinton and Obama will come this Sunday, when both appear in Selma, Ala., for the annual bridge-crossing, a major civil-rights commemoration. For a while, the debate around Obama centered on whether he was "black enough," given his biracial heritage. Now, the Clinton camp faces its own "black question" – can the senator hold onto the support of the voters who showed unfailing devotion to her husband?