WASHINGTON – If the Democratic primaries are a guide, Barack Obama has a problem with white voters.
The Illinois senator won only 38 percent of the white vote in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, a big part of the reason he lost the state. And it’s not just the Keystone State.
Of the 30 states so far where voters were interviewed as they left polling places, Obama won the white vote in just seven, including his home state of Illinois.
Even in Iowa, where his kickoff victory had supporters reveling in his ability to win an overwhelmingly white state, he took only 30 percent of the white vote in a multi-candidate field.
Some think he could do better winning white votes in the fall because white supporters of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton would rally to him rather than to Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Others, however, say his job would get harder, that he’d never get the support of some Democrats and perhaps other whites who haven’t voted in the Democratic primaries. That would compound the historic challenge that any Democrat faces in winning whites in a general presidential election – where no Democrat has won a majority of the white vote since Lyndon Johnson did in 1964.
“He would have a harder time winning white voters in the general election than Hillary,” said Brad Coker, the managing partner of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which does surveys for McClatchy and MSNBC. “There is a layer of white voters that is having a hard time voting for him.”
Why? It’s impossible to draw broad conclusions about the motives of white voters in the Democratic primaries.
Some just may like Clinton more, preferring her experience or her stand on issues such as the economy or health care, said G. Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
Some may find him too liberal.
Some, no doubt, harbor racist sentiments toward the first African-American with a genuine shot at winning not only a major party presidential nomination but also the White House.
Bitter feelings likely were stirred by revelations about Obama’s former pastor, seen in videos using racially inflammatory language, such as calling the country the “U.S. of KKK-A.” They likely were aggravated further when Obama said that working-class Pennsylvanians cling to God and guns out of bitterness.
“That’s created a problem not just among white voters, but the entire state,” Madonna said.
More than one in 10 whites in Pennsylvania this week said that the race of the candidate was a factor in how they voted – and they broke for Clinton by a margin of 3-1.
One was Richard Sackett, a retiree from Greensburg, a small town near Pittsburgh.
Did he vote against Obama because of his race?
“It was a factor, but a bigger factor was his lack of experience,” Sackett said. “He talks about bringing people together; the only people he brought together were blacks.”
Another was Mary Lou Pimicter, the owner of a deli in Nanticoke, a town near Wilkes-Barre.
“Race was not a factor for me, but I know it was with a lot of people here. There’s a lot of prejudice,” Pimicter said.
“She really wants to help people,” she said of Clinton.
Her opinion of Obama? “He’s colored.”
Obama likely suffered enduring damage in the eyes of some whites from his close relationship to his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Wright’s raw racial sermons threatened to undermine Obama’s efforts to cast himself as a voice of a post-civil rights era that no longer sees race through the us-vs.-them lens of the 1960s. That kind of racial politics scared whites and marginalized earlier African-American candidates such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
“Obama comes across differently from Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. He comes across as a black guy with mainstream attitudes and credentials,” said Ferrel Guillory, the director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“That’s why the Jeremiah Wright thing hurt him. It pushed him into the other category. He has a better chance if he can make a convincing case that he’s a black guy but not of the old, in-your-face civil rights mode.”
Yet Obama had problems winning white voters before Pennsylvania and before the news about his former pastor surfaced.
That suggests a deeper, more historic challenge.
One possible explanation is that Obama’s done worst among whites in states with histories of racial tension and polarization. Among them are several states in the South: Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Another is that the states where he’s done best with whites include several where Clinton didn’t campaign aggressively and thus didn’t draw off as many white votes. They include Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin, of which only Virginia has a sizable black population.
Would Obama have a chance at a majority of white votes in the fall?
One Obama supporter who’s navigated racial politics for years thinks he will, and that even if he loses some white votes to racist sentiments, he’ll win other whites eager to vote for an African-American.
“There may be some folks who vote against him because he’s black and some who vote for him because he’s black. I think they cancel each other out,” said Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the Democratic Party in South Carolina.
“There will be people who wouldn’t vote for a black man come hell or high water. But we’re getting to the point where that is a minority.”
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