WASHINGTON — Black voters may be leaning toward supporting Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination over Barack Obama because they're dubious that America is ready to elect a black president, a new survey suggests.
The national poll released Tuesday by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a liberal policy organization in Washington, and sponsored by AARP, the senior-citizens group, confirms that African-American likely voters favor the two leading Democrats, and it underscores the stakes for both in Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses, where the voting begins. Obama and Clinton are running neck and neck in Iowa, recent polls show, though many voters remain undecided.
If Illinois Sen. Obama were to win there, in a nearly all-white state, that might convince black voters that he's electable and persuade them to vote for him over New York Sen. Clinton in later contests where their votes could spell the difference, such as in South Carolina.
"I think there are a lot of black voters who think Hillary Clinton has a better chance of being elected president," said David Bositis, senior policy analyst for the center, which specializes in analyzing issues important to African-Americans. "They're basing this thought, this feeling, on their own experiences. African-American voters think . . . `there's no way in the world a black candidate is going to be elected president.'
"I don't think it's over. The thing to watch is the Iowa caucuses. If Obama wins the Iowa caucuses, there are a lot of people who will reconsider Obama as a candidate."
The poll didn't ask a straight-up "whom would you vote for" question. Rather, those surveyed gave Clinton an 83 percent favorable rating, and Obama a 74 percent favorable rating. Both had unfavorable ratings of just 10 percent. No other candidate from either party came close.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had the highest favorability of the Republican candidates — 27 percent — but also the highest unfavorable score, 43 percent.
Asked what they consider more important — a commitment to change, the core message of Obama's campaign, or a candidate's experience, which former first lady Clinton emphasizes — respondents put a priority on change over experience by nearly 2 to 1. But in question after question, those same voters showed a clear preference for Clinton, even on choices in which the candidates' platforms differ little.
Asked which candidate would be best at breaking through gridlock, 47 percent said Clinton, while 22 percent said Obama.
On health care, 47 percent said Clinton had the best plan, while 19 percent chose Obama. Their plans are similar, though Clinton's would require everyone to enroll in health insurance, while Obama's wouldn't, which could leave perhaps 15 million Americans uninsured.
On strengthening Social Security, 41 percent preferred Clinton and 19 percent Obama, even though Clinton hasn't put forth a plan.
On dealing with Iraq, 35 percent said Clinton had the best position, while 22 percent preferred Obama's stance. Both favor ending the war, but Obama opposed it from the outset, while Clinton initially favored it. Each would leave some unspecified number of troops in Iraq to fight terrorists, train Iraqi soldiers and guard the U.S. Embassy.
Bositis said other factors included African-American support for Clinton's husband during his presidency, and Clinton herself being a national figure for longer than Obama.
Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland professor who studies African-American voters, said the Bill Clinton effect and blacks' pre-existing comfort with Hillary Clinton probably were bigger obstacles to Obama at first. But now that the first-term senator is building credibility with blacks nationally, suspicions about white voters are holding him back with undecided black voters.
"That's a deep-seated sensitivity," Walters said. "If he wins Iowa, there's going to be a whole lot of recalculation, blacks, whites and everybody else. It's a must-win for him."
In a Pew poll of Democratic voters in September, 50 percent of white respondents said that Clinton had the best chance in a general election, versus 20 percent for Obama. The gap was slightly larger among African-Americans, with 58 percent saying Clinton's chances were better, versus 22 percent for Obama.
Obama's wife, campaigning for him last week in South Carolina, spoke to a black audience about the issue, imploring them not to prejudge what white voters might do.
The telephone survey of 750 African-American likely voters was conducted Oct. 5-Nov. 12 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
See more results of the survey at www.jointcenter.org. Click on "Senators Clinton, Obama Well Ahead of the Pack in the Minds of Likely African American Primary Voters" at the bottom of the page.