How big a factor is race in Democratic presidential contest?

WASHINGTON — Race matters in the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign, but how much it matters isn't clear yet.

"We are moving toward a post-racial society, and we're going to find out how far along that path we are," said author Richard Reeves.

This much is clear: Illinois Sen. Barack Obama does well among whites in states such as Vermont and Iowa, where there are few blacks and little or no history of racial conflict.

In states with large numbers of black voters — and legacies of racial tension — African-Americans give Obama huge majorities, and better-educated and higher-income whites tend to give him strong support, too. But most other whites in those states lean to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Is that partly about race?

When prominent Southern historian Earl Black, a professor of political science at Rice University in Houston, looks at some recent primary results — including Clinton's 3 to 1 win among whites in Mississippi on Tuesday — he sees a familiar pattern: "It's like a general election. In the South, there's total racial polarization in the Democratic field."

But when Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a liberal research group, weighs Obama's success nationwide in becoming the Democratic front-runner, he sees the possibility that Obama may be creating a new political paradigm.

It's too soon to say for sure, Teixeira said, but race "must matter less than it used to, or Obama would not be in the position he's in."

The potential that race may influence the campaign was magnified in recent days by comments from 1984 Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro.

"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," the only woman ever on a major national presidential ticket told the Torrance (Calif.) Daily Breeze.

The remark ignited a firestorm. Clinton called the comment "regrettable." Obama protested that Ferraro was engaging in "the kind of slice-and-dice politics that's about race and about gender and about this and that, and that's what Americans are tired of . . . ."

When Ron Walters, the director of the African-American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland, heard Ferraro's comments, he shuddered.

"As a negative campaign tactic, race matters," he said. "They (the Clinton campaign) have been trying to draw attention to race."

In states that have voted so far, raw exit poll numbers indicate strong racial patterns, particularly in states with histories of racial tension.

Clinton won big among whites in most Southern states. In New Jersey, she won the white vote by 2 to 1. She won Missouri's whites 57 to 39 percent, and Ohio's 61 to 38 percent. Is that partly about race?

Obama backers counter that not only has he topped expectations in those states, he's also triumphed in states that have very few blacks — Kansas, Idaho, Vermont and others _and nearly tied Clinton among whites in California and Connecticut.

Those states, however, don't have the history of racial conflict that still influences the culture of the South, or the history of black vs. white blue-collar job rivalry that's strained three generations in the industrial Midwest.

Two big tests soon may tell more about whether Obama can continue to build a multi-racial coalition, or whether he'll be seen by strong majorities of white voters as this year's "black candidate," too tied to his African-American base to win their support.

Pennsylvania, which holds its primary on April 22, is the kind of northern industrial state that Clinton has been winning. Its large working-class white population dwarfs the African-American voting bloc in Philadelphia and a smaller one in Pittsburgh.

North Carolina, though, is the kind of Southern state that Obama's been winning, largely because blacks make up an estimated 38 percent of the Democratic voting population. Its primary is on May 6.

How will the races divide in each state? If either candidate cuts deeply into the other's base, they might be able to win decisive victories that persuade the broader party that they could build a majority coalition in the fall. Experts think Obama has a better chance to do that because the Clinton campaign's tactics appear to have made blacks more wary of her than whites seem to be about Obama.

"Obama's desperately worked to avoid identification as the 'black candidate,' and we've found that while he may lose votes due to race, I don't think he's going to lose a lot,' " said G. Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

He said that Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who's African-American, won his office five months ago with a black-white coalition. Former Pittsburgh Steelers legend Lynn Swann got 39.6 percent of the 2006 gubernatorial vote running as a Republican, and did well in predominantly white southwestern Pennsylvania.

In North Carolina, Hunter Bacot, director of the Elon University Poll, said his state has Democratic demographics similar to Georgia, where Obama got 43 percent of the white vote on Feb. 5.

"There's been a big influx into North Carolina," he said. "The Charlotte to Raleigh corridor has grown tremendously," largely with white professionals often from outside the South.

David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a liberal group that researches black voting, sees a nationwide trend emerging in Obama's support.

"What black voters (in Georgia and elsewhere) have done is to align with a coalition that's historically been all white," he said.

He called it the "Gary Hart coalition," after the 1984 Democratic candidate who campaigned as an outsider eager for change and nearly won his party's nomination by attracting well-educated, higher income voters — but not many blacks.

"The pattern was that I attracted younger independents," Hart recalled in an interview. "The profile of the Obama voter is much the same in that he's getting those voters, and his magic is that race is not a factor." Except that it clearly is for blacks.

Two other factors suggest that Obama is building a new kind of coalition: Analysts find that younger voters tend to be more color-blind, having grown up in a society that readily accepts people of color in daily life.

In addition, said Reeves, in recent years white society has effortlessly embraced black celebrities without the double standard that prevailed in previous generations. "To some degree, Obama taps something that's already happened in society, that there is no prejudice against celebrities," Reeves said, citing the popularity of talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, golfer Tiger Woods, actor Will Smith and others.

Yet no one is ready to proclaim the end of racial tension in American politics. It's been there too long, and its history is too pervasive in many states.

Together, the emerging trends suggest racially tinged voting in some places but not in others, especially those with no heritage of racial friction. The trends also may rise as much from class as from race.

And in the eyes of some, Obama is forging a new coalition, one that weds black pride in his promise with an idealism shared by young and well-off whites, and a hefty share of other whites who view him through a post-racial lens.

But how these overlapping trends sort out is difficult to discern. The role of race in American politics remains a puzzle whose outcome is still evolving, said Madonna. As a result, "nobody at this point knows the answer."

Related stories from Columbus Ledger-Enquirer