“We’ll be playing with fire if we interfere with the voters’ choice,” James Clyburn, the party’s chief whip in the House of Representatives, told The Sunday Times. “African-Americans will feel cheated.”
Clinton is hoping to win by persuading superdelegates – the party officials with a free vote and the power to tip the nomination at the Democratic convention in August – to back her, even if Obama is in the lead once all the primaries and caucuses have been held.
But Clyburn, who has yet to endorse either candidate, believes this path would be suicidal for the Democrats. African-Americans were not the only ones who would feel betrayed, he said. “Barack Obama has brought in a lot of young voters for the first time, and they’ll feel cheated too.” Many Clinton supporters are equally adamant that their candidate must win because white Americans are not going to elect a black president. Either way, Democrats are on a collision course.
“When it comes down to it, they are not going to vote for a black man,” said Jim Whitworth, 43, who wore a Harley-Davidson motorcycle T-shirt and a chestful of Hillary for President buttons to a Clinton rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He said the more he learnt about Obama, the more he found him “scary”.
“I don’t feel like I’m a racist, but this country is. People say they will vote for a black person, but when they get to the polls they won’t.”
The Democratic party is splitting over the most ugly, divisive issue in America. The contest began as an exciting, inspirational battle between two widely respected candidates with the potential to make history as the first woman or first black president. Yet it could end in bitterness and defeat at the hands of the Republicans if the breach is not healed.
In Florida, 27% of voters said America was not ready for a black president, according to exit polls. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, race was an important factor to 20% and 19% respectively. These three swing states are critical to the Democrats’ prospects of winning the White House this November – and Clinton has beaten Obama decisively in all of them.
When Obama won in Iowa, a predominantly white state, in early January, it was a moment of promise. Some people were moved to tears as crowds chanted: “Race doesn’t matter.”
Clyburn has a different opinion. “Race always matters,” he said. “That slogan was more about young college graduates telling people, ‘Race doesn’t matter to us’.”
Obama was defeated by a nine-point margin in last week’s Pennsylvania primary after losing the support of white voters by 63% to 37%. He won 90% of black voters.
His defeat followed a series of unforced errors, such as calling working-class and rural Americans “bitter”. Incendiary speeches by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, his pastor – now famous for saying “God damn America” – were played repeatedly on television.
Wright reemerged on the airwaves this weekend to the consternation of Obama’s camp, which fears a further round of hostile publicity. Wright claimed he had been painted as a fanatic or “wackadoodle”.
North Carolina, which holds its primary along with Indiana on May 6, is the most populous state that has yet to vote. Clinton, 60, is campaigning hard there, but her rallies – following a well-established pattern – are almost exclusively white.
She is unlikely to win the state, given its large black population, but is hoping to prevent Obama from running up a big score in the popular vote and regaining the ground lost in Pennsylvania.
Ashley Rozier, a 50-year-old African-American community health worker, said he had been “ridiculed and persecuted” by black people for supporting her. “It’s unbelievable how we accuse other people of being prejudiced while we’re doing the same,” he said.
Shelby Steele, a black conservative intellectual and author of A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win, believes the Illinois senator, 46, is becoming unmasked by the rigours of the long election campaign.
“His whole glamour was based on the idea that we did not know him,” Steele observed. “I’ve always regarded Obama as a ‘bargainer’ – someone who made whites very comfortable – and that is what accounted for his initial success. But after Reverend Wright, he’s losing his ability to bargain and looking more like a black guy – a ‘challenger’.”
Clyburn blames Bill Clinton for stirring up the issue of race in South Carolina back in January, when the former president put Obama firmly in the box of ethnic minority candidate by comparing his success to that of the failed presidential contender Reverend Jesse Jackson in the 1980s.
Clyburn is still seething. “The last time I talked to Bill Clinton I told him, if he doesn’t watch it, we could make this nomination worthless.”
He had the same message today for Hillary. “Absolutely. She needs to chill out,” he said. “I’ve heard from three different sources this week that part of what the Clintons are doing is making it impossible for Obama to win this November. That may be true . . .
“The speculation is that the Clintons are trying to stop Obama succeeding in order to keep control of the party. If he gets elected, the Clinton era is over. If he wins the nomination and loses, they’ll still be standing and can come back in four years’ time.”
Steele discounts the suggestion that a black man could never win, “I firmly believe that Colin Powell [the former secretary of state] would have been president over Bill Clinton in the 1990s if he had been willing to run, but white working-class voters need something more concrete that the high-bargaining rhetoric that Obama is offering.”
Obama largely retains the coalition of young voters, black people and independents that he assembled early on in his campaign, but without the votes of blue-collar “Reagan Democrats”, his candidacy could be doomed.
The polls show that Obama is able to perform well in largely white states with little history of racial conflict, but is vulnerable in those with large urban centres, a mixed population and a reputation for tension.
The danger is that the Republican candidate, John McCain, with his independent streak and military background, could capture a significant portion of the white, working-class vote and slam the door on a Democratic victory for another generation.
In Florida, McCain outperforms Obama by 50% to 38%. Clinton, however, would beat McCain by 45% to 44%. In Ohio, McCain also beats Obama but loses to Clinton In other states, including Pennsylvania where Obama and McCain are currently level, there is fear of the “Bradley effect”, named after Tom Bradley, an African-American candidate for governor of California in 1982, who scored highly in the polls but lost the election. In several contests, Obama has performed worse than the exit polls have suggested.
Nevertheless, Obama retains a virtual lock on the nomination. With just nine contests to go, the electoral arithmetic remains problematic for Clinton. Under the Democrats’ system of proportional representation, she has little or no chance of erasing his lead of 156 pledged delegates. According to Clyburn, the battle is over unless Obama makes “a big misstep or suffers a blow-out loss in a big state like North Carolina”.
But neither candidate can reach the magic number of 2,024 delegates needed for victory at the national convention without the backing of a majority of the roughly 800 superdelegates.
Clyburn believes the superdelegates should have at most “two or three days to make their position known” once the last primaries are held in early June. After that, he said, the party must reunite if it is to beat the Republicans. “The most important part of this is the person who is in second place,” he cautioned.
Steele believes Obama is likely to “limp across the finish line” first, but his candidacy is wounded, perhaps fatally. “He is now going to have to run as a normal politician without that veneer of charisma. He’s been pretty hurt and he won’t be able to run a campaign based on his original high-flown rhetoric. McCain is an old down-to-earth white guy with a very concrete message.”
The vexing question is whether the superdelegates are willing to countenance a civil war in the party by throwing the nomination to Clinton even if she lags behind Obama in delegates. Some equate this to telling black people to get to the back of the bus, as they did during the years of segregation.
Kevin Marsh, 57, an Obama supporter in Fayetteville, said: “If Hillary wins, there are countless numbers of people of colour who are going to say she stole the election – and they’ll say, ‘I’m not going to vote at all’. It could get really, really bad.”
One leading Clinton supporter said: “In the end, whatever their private thoughts, the superdelegates will not want to risk that reaction.” He believes Clinton will ultimately be gracious in defeat. “If she is seen as sulking in her tent and he loses by one point, that’s a catastrophe for her. She will never be forgiven.”