Obama Must Weigh The X Factor of Race

Illinois Senator Barack Obama says that he's mulling over a presidential run in 2008. That's not surprising considering that Obama has been annointed by Time Magazine as the new face of the Democrats. And it's a good label. Obama is telegenic, articulate, a good campaigner, a top fundraiser, and a centrist Democrat in good stead with the Party regulars. Even the knock against him that he is too green on the issues, and too wet behind the ears as a seasoned political pro, can be airbrushed over since many White House occupants, and that includes the current one, were at the first dot on the learning curve on national and international affairs before they bagged the presidency.

The issue, however, that can't be lightly brushed over is race. The dangling question that Obama must wrestle with is will white voters, and that includes Democrats as well as moderate to conservative independents, vote for a black presidential candidate. The answer is very much up in the air.

Obama did a fairly good job in getting white Democratic and independent vote support in his Illinois Senate victory. But this was not a fair test. His opponent was lightly regarded, fill-in outsider, Alan Keyes, also an African-American. Many Republican loyalists in the state were no-shows on Election Day. The chance that they'd cross over and vote for favorite son, Obama, as a presidential contender, is virtually nil. Still, many white voters when publicly questioned whether they'd vote for a black candidate, swear that race makes no difference in their pick. But it's often a far different story when the voting curtain closes. And there no prying pollster eyes, and reporter microphones and note pads around. In a 2006 study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, a Yale political economist found that white Republicans are 25 percentage points more likely to cross over and vote for a white Democratic senatorial candidate against a black Republican foe.

If Obama had been white and faced Keyes or any other black GOP candidate in his Illinois Senate bid, thousands of white Republicans would have defied their party and crossed over to vote for him. The study also found that in the near 20-year stretch from 1982 to 2000, when the GOP candidate was black, the big majority of white independent voters backed the white candidate. But Republicans and independents weren't the only ones guilty of phony election color-blindness. Many Democrats were too. In House races, the study found that white Democrats were nearly 40 percent less likely to back a black Democratic candidate.

Doug Wilder discovered that the hard way when he made a bid to be the first black governor of Virginia in 1989. Four years earlier, he got substantial white vote support in his successful run for the lieutenant governor. But the governor's race was a far different story. Polls gave Wilder a near landslide victory. But that was based on what white voters told pollsters. On election night, the landslide predictions evaporated, and Wilder barely squeaked out a win. Many white voters that professed their color-blindness toward Wilder, jumped ship in the voting booth.

How much has changed in the near two decades since then? The November 7 mid-term election may give an answer. There are a slew of black Dems and Republican candidates running for governor and the Senate in several key swing states. They face white opponents and they can't win without substantial white vote support. Most of the candidates are well-known, top flight, seasoned office holders, and a high profile sports icon, and are backed to the hilt by their parties, and in a few cases hold substantial leads over their white opponents. Yet, none are considered shoo-ins.

The issue of race will be dicier for Obama in a presidential jaunt. He will have to unhinge one or two of the Southern or Border States away from the GOP. The solid South, that is the South that is mostly white, conservative and male, pro war, anti-big government, vehemently opposes any political tilt to minorities, and is heavily influenced by ultra conservative Bible Belt fundamentalism. Obama is not an outspoken foe of Bush on the war, terrorism, and domestic policies, and even made some soundings about the need to court the evangelicals. But the Southern strategy was the ace in the hole for GOP presidents Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. In 2008 the GOP will do everything it can to make sure that conservative white males don't defect from the party. If Obama is the Dems man in 2008, the GOP may find the temptation almost too irresistible not to flip the race card against him.

Many white voters can and will vote for Obama if they feel he has the presidential right stuff. But many still can't or won't step past his color. That tormenting fact still makes race the X factor that Obama and the Democrats must carefully weigh in 2008.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and The GOP's court of black voters.