December 26, 2007


With the Iowa caucuses set for Jan. 3, and with U.S. Senator Barack Obama developing momentum among liberal Democratic voters, the unspoken -- but relevant -- question is: Is America really ready to elect an African American as president?

After 8 years of the Bush Administration, the country is clearly eager for a change in direction and priorities and is definitely inclined to elect a Democrat to the presidency in 2008. There is little doubt that Hillary Clinton or John Edwards would beat any Republican, but there is considerable doubt that Obama would win if he is nominated.

One of the enduring political fallacies of American politics, reinforced by the plenitude of African Americans in sports and in the media, is that the black population is exploding and that the white population is static or decreasing. Another fallacy is that a black presidential nominee's huge turnout among blacks would enable him to win. In fact, a black presidential candidate would elicit an even higher white turnout.

In 1790, according to census figures, black residents of this country, most of whom were slaves, were 19.3 percent of the population, numbering 757,000. In 2000 blacks were 12.3 percent of the population, numbering 34.6 million. In 210 years the black population grew 45-fold, or by four million each 25-year generation. In 1950 blacks were 9.9 percent of the population (15.1 million), which increased to 10.5 percent in 1960, to 11.1 percent in 1970, to 11.8 percent in 1980 and to 12.1 percent (29.9 million) in 1990.

The black population more than doubled between 1950 and 2000, but the country's white population increased from 135 million to 211.5 million during that period. Despite a higher birth rate among blacks than whites, the white population, fueled by immigration, grew 70-fold in the last 210 years, from 3.1 million in 1790 to 211.5 million in 2000. Whites now outnumber blacks by 6-1. In 1950 whites outnumbered blacks by 9-1, and in 1790 it was 4.2-1.

Then there's the exploding Hispanic population, which numbers 35.5 million, up from 22.3 million in 1990. Many older, conservative Hispanics, largely Democrats, will be disinclined to support a black candidate for president.

The American population of 281 million (up from 248 million in 1990) is roughly 72 percent white, 12 percent black, 13 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian.

Turnout in the 2004 presidential contest was 122,285,000, up from 104,283,000 in 2000. It was 101,016,000 in 1992. Of those voters, less than 10 percent were black.

But the path to the presidential nomination involves far fewer voters, and black voters comprise a disproportionate share of Democrats -- which boosts Obama's prospects for winning the nomination.

Here's how Obama can win the nomination but lose the election:

Iowa (Jan. 3): The state has a population of 2.9 million people, of whom 2.1 percent are black. In the January caucuses, which select county delegates to a state convention which selects national convention delegates, roughly 200,000 Iowans participate, with about 100,000 being Democrats. For Obama, Clinton and Edwards, the "magic number" is 50,000, or 1.7 percent of the state's population. That means find, motivate and deliver 50,000 people on a cold January night.

Iowa is not a liberal state, but Iowa Democrats are liberal, and most activist Democrats are very liberal, very anti-Bush and very anti-Iraq War. Liberals enabled George McGovern to win Iowa in 1972, Jimmy Carter, campaigning as the "change" candidate, won Iowa in 1976, union backing helped Dick Gephardt to win in 1988, and Al Gore beat Bill Bradley in 2000, running as the "electable" Democrat. The 2004 contest is illustrative: Howard Dean, the "change" candidate, brought in 3,500 out-of-state workers and led in the early polls, but John Kerry portrayed Dean as a loser against Bush and got 38 percent of the vote, to 32 percent for Edwards, 18 percent for Dean and 11 percent for Gephardt.

That cinched Kerry's nomination. The news media dismissed Dean as a loser, and Kerry, buoyed by his Iowa victory, went on to win New Hampshire and the nomination -- and then to lose to Bush.

The 2008 outlook: Edwards, a favorite of the unions, has been campaigning nonstop since 2004, and he is likely to replicate his 32 percent vote. Clinton is the "establishment" candidate, backed by most party figures. Obama is the "change" candidate. The question is: Will he collapse like Dean or surge like Carter?

My prediction: Numbers are everything. Hard-core liberals will back Obama, and he will get 35 percent of the delegates, to 32 percent for Edwards and 31 percent for Clinton. The non-Obama vote will be 65 percent, but the media will portray the outcome as a huge loss for Clinton, since the non-Clinton vote will be 69 percent.

New Hampshire (Jan. 8): This is a primary, not a caucus. The state's population is 1.3 million, and the 2004 Democratic presidential primary drew 216,787, or less than 17 percent of the population. Boosted by his Iowa win, Kerry of Massachusetts got 38 percent of the vote, to 26 percent for Den and 12 percent for Edwards. The result doomed Dean and Edwards, and Kerry became the presumptive nominee, even though there were another 20 primaries.

The outlook: If Obama wins Iowa, he'll be favored in New Hampshire, and if he wins New Hampshire, he'll win the nomination.

South Carolina (Jan. 26): The state's population is 4.2 million people, of whom 29.4 percent are black. Turnout in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary was 293,843, or less than 7 percent of the population. Edwards, of North Carolina, got 45 percent of the vote, to 30 percent for Kerry and 5 percent for Dean. Interestingly, black activist Al Sharpton got 10 percent of the vote.

The outlook: Oprah Winfrey's endorsement of Obama and her recent rally in the state will motivate black voters, who constitute more than 40 percent of Democratic primary voters. Edwards must win the state to remain viable. Clinton is trying to finish second. My prediction: Obama will be first with 48 percent of the vote, thereby dooming Edwards and crippling Clinton.

Florida (Jan. 29): Contrary to both parties' demands, the state scheduled an early primary. The state's population is 17.4 million people, of whom 14.2 percent are black. The 2004 Democratic presidential primary drew 753,762, or 4.3 percent of the population. The easy winner, after his triumphs in Iowa and New Hampshire, was Kerry, with 77 percent of the vote. Edwards got 10 percent, Dean got 3 percent, and Sharpton got 3 percent.

For Clinton, Florida is her firewall. At least a third of Democratic primary voters are Jewish. After earlier losses, a Florida win can resuscitate her.

"Super Tuesday" (Feb. 5): With 20 primaries and two caucuses, the Democratic presidential struggle will be over on that day, when 2,063 delegates will be chosen. It takes 2,181 votes to win the Democratic nomination. If Obama wins Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina (with 140 delegates), he'd have great credibility in other states on Feb. 5, which include New York (280 delegates), New Jersey (127), Illinois (185), California (440), Massachusetts (121) and Georgia (104). Other key states include Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Connecticut and Tennessee.

The outlook: Obama certainly will win his home state, and a huge black turnout will boost him in both urban and southern states, but, to triumph, Obama needs white liberals to embrace him as their champion and not ponder the issue of his electability. My prediction: Obama is in the right place at the right time. He will sweep on Feb. 5 and be nominated.

But he will not be elected. Three factors dictate a presidential outcome: comfort, competence and stature. A presidential race with an incumbent is a referendum. Without an incumbent, it's a choice, and if Obama is the Democratic candidate, voters -- especially nonliberal whites and conservative Hispanics -- will ask themselves: Am I comfortable with Obama in the White House? Do I want a black president? Does Obama have the seasoning, gravitas and experience to be the commander in chief?

Kerry lost by just 2,912,497 votes in 2004, carrying 19 states with 252 electoral votes. For a Democrat to win in 2008, all he or she need do is win all the 2004 Kerry states plus 18 more electoral votes -- such as in Ohio (20), Colorado (9), New Mexico (5), Nevada (5) or Arizona (10). Clinton or Edwards would do that. Obama would not.

In Tennessee in 2006, Democrats ran U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr., who is black, for senator. He ran as a moderate, not a militant, but he lost by 49,935 votes, getting 48 percent of the votes cast, to an unimpressive Republican, Bob Corker. Ford got 156,501 fewer votes than Kerry, who lost the state with 43 percent of the vote. A substantial number of white voters simply will not vote for a black candidate.

Nationwide, for Republicans in 2008, it will be Tennessee all over. If the Democrats nominate Obama, a Republican will beat him.