Hillary Clinton’s big win in Pennsylvania is reviving the question of whether racial prejudice among some US voters could scupper her Democratic presidential foe Barack Obama’s quest for history.
Clinton anchored a campaign-saving win Tuesday on her core coalition of white, working class voters, a bloc in which Obama — vying to become America’s first black president — finds it difficult to make inroads.
Exit polls conducted for US media organizations found that 18 percent of Democratic voters said race was a factor in their decision, and only 63 percent said they would back Obama in a general election if he was the nominee.
Obama won 90 percent of the African American vote, continuing his dominance of that crucial Democratic constituency. Clinton meanwhile won 63 percent of the much larger, white vote.
In the fallout from the bruising Pennsylvania campaign, a politically incorrect question is again being asked: is America ready to vote for a black president, especially in key swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania?
“Race is very definitely, part of the white working class vote,” said Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
“How big a part it is, we don’t know,” he said. “There are older whites who cannot bring themselves to vote for a black candidate for president.”
Obama dismisses the idea that race is an issue in his failure to win big battleground states like Ohio and Pennsylvania in the nominating race, which Democrats need to forge a road to the White House.
“Our problem has less to do with white, working class voters,” Obama said on Wednesday in Indiana, which with North Carolina, holds the next nominating showdowns on May 6.
“The problem is that, to the extent that there is a problem, is that older voters are very loyal to Senator Clinton.”
Even assessing the extent of the racially motivated vote is problematic. Pollsters have long suspected that people do not answer questions truthfully in an exit poll on issues of race. No one wants to admit they are a racist.
It is also tough to separate racial voting patterns from wider concerns of the blue-collar, white working class voters who support Clinton in large numbers.
Obama appears to have trouble connecting with that group: a recent row over his remarks that some small town Americans were “bitter” so turn to guns and God, highlighted the apparent disconnect.
The race argument can also be challenged by the fact that Obama’s campaign got off to a rocketing start with his win in Iowa, one of the least diverse states. He also won big in another mostly white battleground, Wisconsin.
Obama’s campaign insists racial prejudice has not been a dominant trend in primaries which Obama lost, and says he is improving his penetration into the bloc of working class whites, who Clinton says she can best win in a general election.
“I think there are people obviously in the general election that won’t support him,” Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs told MSNBC, but argued that most people would vote for their own interests in Iraq, high gas prices, healthcare and rising tuition costs.
“People are going to focus not on the color of somebody’s skin but on what they’re going to try to do for the American people to make their lives better,” Gibbs said.
Bruce Buchanan, professor of politics at the University of Texas at Austin, said Obama may be able to compensate for the relatively small numbers of voters who voted on racial lines by broadening the Democratic tent.
“There was always going to be a race factor, because he was the first African American,” Buchanan said.
“On the other hand, he appeals to Republicans and independents and Hillary does not.”
Though Obama has been determined to ensure that the election is not about race, fearing being pegged as a ‘black’ candidate, the issue has simmered in the background.
Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright on Thursday condemned the furor set off by his fiery sermons, which proliferated on the Internet, and sparked a political crisis for Obama, prompting him to give a major speech on race last month.
The Clinton campaign has also been accused of playing the race card against Obama, in an effort to depress his standing among socially conservative white voters, an accusation it has strongly denied.