Can Black Women Save the Liberal Coalition?

In a primary contest that is increasingly defined by race and gender -- thanks to the "firsts" represented by the presidential candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- Black women are in a unique position, poised to celebrate the nomination of either candidate as one of their own, yet highly tuned into any sex- or race-based cardplay exercised by the campaigns or the media. Within the black voting population, the majority of votes -- as much as 60 percent of black votes -- will be cast by women. Nowhere is that more apparent than in South Carolina, where more than half of of Democratic voters are Black, the majority of them women . By at least one estimate, black women could make up as much as 30 percent of the South Carolina Democratic primary vote.

If the nomination contest is as close at the national level as suggested by the most recent Reuters/Zogby poll, which found Obama and Clinton virtually tied, at 38 and 39 percent respectively, Black women could determine the outcome of primaries in states where the votes of Blacks weigh heavily among Democrats likely to go to the polls. (Other national polls show Clinton clearly in the lead, by a range of margins.) Of the 22 states holding Democratic primaries on Super Tuesday, nine have black populations with percentages in the double-digits, including southern states whose populations, like Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, approach or exceed 30 percent.

"Black women are often given the last seat at the decision-making table," said Democratic strategist and CNN commentator Donna Brazile, who has also remained neutral in the race. "So, for black women voters and potential candidates, it's not a question of 'our time or our moment,' it's a question of respect for the strong and consistent support we provide to Democratic candidates of all backgrounds."

"I truthfully think that most American people just don't know the power of the black female vote," said Maretta J. Short, president of the New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), and the first Black to lead a NOW state-level organization. (While NOW's national PAC has endorsed Clinton, NOW-NJ, located in one of the most delegate-rich Super-Tuesday states, has remained neutral.) According to David A. Bositis, of the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies, Black women make up 60 percent of the total Black vote. And they're the Democrats' "most loyal voting bloc," he said. Short contends that even Blacks aren't aware of black women's strength at the ballot box, because it's not a point that gets made in the media -- not even black media.

"Black voters, as a group, do not vote principally on race," says Bositis. For instance, blacks have shown no great inclination to vote for black Republicans, he explains, citing the 2006 Maryland Senate race, in which the majority of Blacks voted for Ben Cardin, a white man, and against Michael Steele, who is black. Black women have also provided the Democrats with their vaunted gender gap, pointed out Eleanor Holmes Norton, via cell phone between appointments on the morning after the Democrats' raucous Martin Luther King Day debate.

So, when Bill Clinton declared the South Carolina primary to be a contest of race versus gender, he missed a critical point: black women, overall, are more used to voting for female candidates than are white women. Among the total number of Blacks in elected office (most of whom come from majority-black constituencies), according to Bositis, women comprise 40 percent. Among white elected officials, only 20 percent are women.) But if the bare-knuckles politics that the Clinton camp has been playing with Obama is perceived by black women to be race-based, there looms the likely evaporation of any gender affiliation that may exist with Hillary Clinton among the majority of Democratic women in South Carolina -- and possibly beyond.

It appears quite likely that, this Saturday, Black women will hand Obama his second primary victory against Clinton. If that happens, as the polls are predicting, it will signal the movement, over the last several weeks, of large numbers of black women voters from the Clinton camp to Obama's.

"Basically, [black women's] original premise was that white people weren't going to vote for a black man," says Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the congressional delegate from the District of Columbia, who has taken a neutral position in the primary contest. Once Obama established in Iowa that he could win white votes, Black women gave his candidacy a second look, Norton said, and liked what they saw. But it's not that simple, says David A. Bositis, Ph.D., of the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies.

"[In South Carolina,] we are seeing a major migration of Black voters from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama," Bositis, who conducts polling surveys for the Joint Center, said by phone from his Washington, D.C. office. "That's because of what's perceived as the Clinton campaigns tactics and the introduction of race into the campaign. ... This is viewed very, very negatively by Black voters." And the majority of those Black voters are women.

According to polls from Real Clear Politics (RCP) Obama began to pull even with Clinton in South Carolina around the time of his celebrated December 10 appearance in the state capital with Oprah Winfrey. The two remained pretty much neck-and-neck until days before the New Hampshire primary, when Clinton supporter Bill Shaheen (who was subsequently fired) made controversial remarks about Obama's admitted use of drugs in his teen. On the day before the New Hampshire primary, the RCP graph shows a 10-point leap in Obama's South Carolina numbers, and a seven-point drop in Clinton's.

"Let me assure you that in the Black community, there is beginning to be some degree of concern about the things that have been attributed to the Clinton campaign," said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democratic South Carolina state legislator in Orangeburg County, located just south of Columbia, in the central part of the state. This, she says, includes the Shaheen comments, and "dissension between Blacks and Latinos," which she called "division that the Clinton campaign started in Nevada." Cobb-Hunter also cites Clinton supporter Andrew Cuomo's use of "shuck and jive," and BET founder Bob Johnson's apparent allusion to Obama's past drug use. In keeping with her policy in past primaries, Cobb-Hunter has not endorsed a candidate although, she admits, it's been difficult this time to remain neutral.

Cobb-Hunter does not approve of Bill Clinton's campaign style. "It is like this man has lost his mind. And I can understand and appreciate his support for his wife: that's natural, and that's to be expected. But you don't have to build yourself up by tearing down another candidate and, quite frankly, just making up stuff."

And that's just the Clintons. Throw in John Edwards' opportunistic attempt to capitalize on Hillary Clinton's eye-welling moment in New Hampshire. Compound it with routinely sexist assessments of Hillary Clinton's candidacy by ostensibly liberal media personalities and factor in a debate within the women's movement over whether a black man enjoys and electoral advantage over a white woman, and you have Black women caught in the crossfire of race and gender politics.

How will the liberal coalition manage to hold together when this is all over? Short thinks that the black women will be key to drawing the coalition back together. "Whenever there is dissension between two groups of people, the person who is the most marginalized becomes the peacemaker," said Short. "And history shows that over and over again as far as black women are concerned."

But before the forgiving can begin, Cobb-Hunter says party leaders will need to reach out to Black women. "There has to be an acknowledgment that we've got a problem here," she said, "and that there needs to be dialogue."

Holmes Norton isn't ready to join in the fretting. She sees today's bruised feelings as a short-term backlash that will dissipate once the general election is underway. "[T]he notion of there being a lasting backlash underestimates black women totally," she told me. "First of all, the best healers are going to be the candidates themselves. And if it's Hillary, she's going to pay even more attention to black women."

But won't this sniping and ugliness be remembered when it's time to govern? Even if the Democrat wins, will he or she be able to marshal her or his own forces? Yes, says Norton.

"Bill Clinton, for example, ran as a ... conservative Democrat," Norton said. "And for this he became 'the first black president.'" She let out a hearty laugh.

"[W]e should not underestimate how hungry both black people and women are for a president [who represents their interests]," Norton said. "It's true that, until the race got to be this close, you didn't see as much fire, but black people -- and black women -- don't expect the race to get this close and expect people to play Tiddly Winks."

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