A Nightmare of their Own Making (Smoked-Filled Rooms II)

How will black voters react if Obama retains the lead in delegates, popular votes, states won, and money raised, but the superdelegates give Clinton the nomination?

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They're working. The rules are working as designed (see my earlier piece, No Time for Smoke-Filled Rooms), to guarantee that in a deeply divided, complicated and dangerous primary season the party elders will have the last say in choosing the Democratic Party's nominee for president. But the people who designed, and seem so eager to play by, these rules might do well to consider the following question: How will black voters react if Obama retains the lead in delegates, popular votes, states won and money raised, but the superdelegates give Clinton the nomination?

The probability of this scenario emerging is more likely than it sounds. First, as several articles today have already pointed out, Clinton's victory in Pennsylvania while strong, was not overwhelming to the degree needed to start changing the basic math. Clinton needs to have won the remaining contests by over 15 percent in order to have a chance to pull close enough to Obama in popular vote and pledged delegates to make a convincing claim that the results at the polls had not produced a clear winner.

As important, the March fundraising numbers make it extremely clear that the Clinton campaign is in bad financial shape, and the Obama campaign continues to acquire extraordinary fiscal resources. This will be more important in the remaining primaries as many, such as Indiana, are far more favorable to Obama than Pennsylvania. Thus, Obama's superior resources are likely to have a greater impact in the remaining contests. Yesterday's results reinforce the strong belief that Clinton cannot even come close in votes and delegates, let alone pull ahead.

The picture for Obama is sobering as well. Yesterday's results have done nothing to alleviate worries that he is having a hard time making inroads among white working class voters—particularly white Catholic voters who were at the core of the group labeled the "Reagan Democrats." As many of us have argued , "the race card" does, indeed, work against Obama. CNN reports that of the 20 percent of voters that considered race yesterday, nearly 60 percent went to Clinton. Of the 21 percent who considered gender, 71 percent chose Clinton, compared to 23 percent for Obama.

In another story, an AP-Yahoo poll earlier this month found that nearly 10 percent of whites felt comfortable plainly stating that they would have problems voting for a black candidate for president. The conservative estimate of the article was that this translates into probably 15 percent unwilling to vote for a black candidate, regardless of his or her qualifications. A "prominent Republican" interviewed for the story claimed that Obama's biggest weakness was that he was black and therefore had a significant percentage of the November electorate already predisposed against him. Such glaring numbers may persuade still uncommitted superdelegates that Obama is unelectable in November.

Should that happen, the Democratic Party will face the Herculean task of trying to mobilize its most loyal constituency – black voters -- in the face of deep and widespread black bitterness and active campaigns in the black community encouraging black voters to defect or abstain. You can already hear the angry comparisons. Just like in 2000, the protests will go, an election will have been "stolen." But this time from within the party! Malcolm X's quote about how the rules are changed when blacks start to succeed will also, I bet, be prominently displayed.

Many will argue that if a candidate with as much multi-racial appeal as Obama cannot be treated fairly, then there is truly no hope of any black in the U.S. (with perhaps the exception of a black Republican) to win the nation's top office in the foreseeable future. My own prediction, should we head down this road, is that the already worrying statistic of 79 percent of blacks who believe that racial equality for blacks will either not be achieved in their lifetime or at all in the U.S. will jump to an even larger percentage (see my website for how this percentage has changed over the past few years). Should this happen, Democrats would risk losing traditionally safe states with large black populations, leaving them with amuch more difficult, perhaps impossible, road to victory.

The way out? Let democracy work. The nomination should go to the candidate who wins the largest number of primary votes and delegates. If this happens to be, as seems likely even today, Senator Obama, the Democrats have a clear, if difficult, road to victory in the fall. The way to win if Obama is the candidate is to run the type of grass-roots, hard-nosed campaign that we have not seen from a Democrat at the national level in years. Mobilize the young and people of color who already support Obama in large numbers and put them to work knocking on doors, holding meetings, mobilizing entire communities. Go into the working class towns and urban neighborhoods, saying "you're not sure about me, but let me tell about how I'm going to provide health care, bring the troops home, put Americans back to work, and reign in the corporations in this period of economic devastation that is undermining the welfare of many, many Americans."

Obama needs to run as a populist, and as a hard core Democrat who can convincingly make the argument that McCain is not a centrist, but a right wing extremist, who even some of his Republican colleagues consider more dangerous than the current president. He needs to expose McCain's right-wing extremist and corporate, slime-bag supporters and show how they represent not only business, as usual, but a clear and present danger to the Republic. This is the most likely way Obama can win. He cannot out centrist McCain. He has to demonstrate what is at stake and why even those who may not like him should support him for their own good. Democrats have not run campaigns like this much lately. It is a type of campaign, however, that could both invigorate and reunite a party that is now badly fractured and headed for a nightmarish fall.

Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.