Politics & Government

Will black voters stay home if Obama loses nomination?

Sen. Barack Obama speaks about Rev. Jeremiah Wright
Sen. Barack Obama speaks about Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jae C. Hong / AP

Obama says Wright might cost him Indiana

INDIANAPOLIS — Many black voters are making it very clear: They're concerned that Barack Obama is going to be denied the Democratic presidential nomination that they see as rightfully his, and if that happens, a lot of them may stay home in November.

"It would hurt me not to vote," said Charles Clark, an Indianapolis retiree. He's thinking about leaving the presidential box on his ballot blank this fall if Hillary Clinton is the Democrats' nominee.

"There was a heck of a push made so blacks could vote. I know that," he said. "But it would also be very unfair if they pushed Barack Obama to the side."

Michelle Moore, an Indianapolis housewife, is less gentle: "Hillary Clinton would not even still be in the race if Obama was a white man," she said.

Her tough tone was common this week in this city's black community. Why, people asked, is the Illinois senator's relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright being judged so harshly? Why won't Democratic Party officials acknowledge that Obama's in the lead and unite around him?

African-Americans have been the Democratic Party's most reliable bloc, giving about 90 percent of their votes to former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in the last two presidential elections.

In a close election this year, an African-American exodus from the voting booth could be costly to Democrats, particularly in the South, where blacks are a large proportion of the electorate.

If Obama isn't the nominee, "there would be a significant number of African-Americans who would stay home. They're not voting for (presumptive Republican nominee) John McCain," predicted David Bositis, a senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which researches black voting trends.

Todd Shaw, a University of South Carolina political science professor, agreed, citing a groundswell of African-American disenchantment with both Bill and Hillary Clinton. They're particularly annoyed by Bill Clinton's performance during the South Carolina primary and by Clinton supporter James Carville's description of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Latino, as "Judas" for endorsing Obama over Hillary Clinton.

"The comment plays very badly with African-Americans and Latinos," Shaw said. "They remind them of 'Look what we've done for you; you should stay in line.' That doesn't sit well with voters of color. They view it as Northern machine politics or Old South boss politics."

Hunter Bacot, an associate professor of political science at Elon University in North Carolina, saw another piece of political history haunting black Obama backers.

"There's a sentiment among blacks that they've been taken for granted by the Democratic Party," Bacot said. "If Obama loses, it's as though their candidate's victory was overturned."

Democratic National Committee officials acknowledge that there could be some falloff of African-American voters if Obama isn't the nominee. Still, Karen Finney, a DNC spokeswoman, said the party expects African-Americans — frustrated by the war in Iraq, the sagging economy and high gasoline prices — to go to the polls in their usual numbers when they compare whomever the Democratic nominee is with McCain.

"We are aware that this has been an intense race, that there have been some tough feelings, and there are concerns," she said. However, how those feelings are soothed and concerns resolved will depend largely on how Clinton and Obama personally handle victory and defeat.

Several African-Americans in Indiana, which holds a crucial Democratic primary on Tuesday, said they could be seeing yet another effort by the white establishment to crush any African-American who's earned a powerful position.

"Here we go again," said Eddie Pryor, an Indianapolis retiree.

"It's like there's a ceiling for us," added Bangen Finley, an Indianapolis machinist.

Feelings are similar elsewhere. Former Rep. Floyd Flake, D-N.Y., an African Methodist Episcopal church pastor and president of a private black college in Ohio, said he constantly hears the angst of African-American and young voters about Obama's fortunes.

"If he doesn't get it, there will be a response," Flake said. "The young people will not be showing up to vote for Hillary Clinton if she gets it. I think given the turnout coming from young people and African-Americans (for Obama), I don't think they will go to the polls if she is the candidate."

But Jerry Mondesire, the president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP and publisher of The Philadelphia Sunday Sun, an African-American weekly newspaper, said it's foolish for any Democrat to refuse to vote if his or her candidate isn't the nominee.

"It's a stupid way for Obama supporters to think and a stupid way for Hillary Clinton supporters to think," said Mondesire, a pledged Clinton delegate. "It's a selfish and destructive way to think. I can't think of what the Supreme Court would look like if McCain were elected. Roe v. Wade could be diminished, and Brown v. Board of Education could be impacted."

Some African-American voters in Indiana acknowledge that they might come around even if Clinton wins.

"I am offended by Hillary Clinton. What's going on now is unwarranted," said Shirley Graham, an Indianapolis auto company worker. But she will vote Democratic in the fall. "I am a Christian. I can't allow myself to have lingering bitterness," she said.

Others are undecided.

"They're criticizing Obama in ways that are not really relevant," said Bill Davis, a Carmel electrical engineer. "I will make a determination about voting in November at that time."

Michelle Moore, however, has made up her mind: Clinton is out.

"Senator Obama is just not being treated fairly," she insisted. "You would think everything that Reverend Wright says is coming right from Obama's mouth."

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