The discussion of the politics of race typically starts and ends with the question: “Are whites ready to elect a black man as president?” The question that Barack Obama’s strategists should be asking is, “Are Hispanics willing to vote for a black man for president?”

Many pundits assumed that when Hillary Clinton played “the race card,” she meant to solidify her cred with white voters – particularly those who are lower income and less educated – by reminding them of Obama’s blackness, so as to undermine his campaign strategy based on transcending race. Hillary’s “Southern strategy,” as it were:

† Margaret Carlson: “I saw Al Sharpton defending Senator Barack Obama from charges of youthful drug abuse. … Sharpton has done things to redeem himself in recent years, but his presence is a one-way ticket back to Tawana Brawley, boycotts, shakedowns and good old-fashioned, in-your-face confrontational race-based politics. Seeing him in that box on TV, I realized that the Clintons had done what they needed to do to stop Obama’s historic surge in its tracks.”

† Timothy Egan: [E]very mention of race – from the overblown dust-up with Senator Hillary Clinton this week to the calculated comments comparing him to Sidney Poitier – is bad for Obama. A victory in South Carolina, with its heavy black vote, will be seen as one-dimensional. He needs people to look at him and see John Kennedy, or The Beatles, or Tiger Woods in his first Master’s tournament. He needs people to see youth, a break with the past, style under pressure. When they see black this or black that – even a positive black first – it’s trouble.

† Eugene Robinson: It was never realistic to think that race – or gender, for that matter – would stay out of a contest starring the first woman and the first African American with realistic hopes of becoming president. … That seemed a curious tactic to employ just two weeks before the South Carolina Democratic primary, in which African Americans are expected to cast about half the total votes. … The Clintons … might well be resigned to the possibility that most black Democrats will vote for Obama. This would mean that South Carolina is probably already lost and that the campaign’s focus now has to be on Florida and the many states whose delegates are up for grabs on “Tsunami Tuesday.” Is it possible that accusing Obama and his campaign of playing the race card might create doubt in the minds of the moderate, independent white voters who now seem so enamored of the young, black senator? Might that be the idea?

Obama is convinced that white racism is yesterday’s news, else wouldn’t be running on the promise of a new tomorrow. Hillary must be convinced of it too, which means her only strategic option is to exploit black-Hispanic tensions. Obama is up against “El Efecto Bradley,” the Hispanic version of the Bradley effect, where it’s all Kumbaya amongst black and Hispanic leaders but a different story on the mean streets. Reports The New York Times:

Mr. Obama confronts a history of often uneasy and competitive relations between blacks and Hispanics, particularly as they have jockeyed for influence in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

“Many Latinos are not ready for a person of color,” Natasha Carrillo, 20, of East Los Angeles, said. “I don’t think many Latinos will vote for Obama. There’s always been tension in the black and Latino communities. There’s still that strong ethnic division. I helped organize citizenship drives, and those who I’ve talked to support Clinton.” …

The tensions between Hispanics and African-Americans have increased proportionately with the influx of new Hispanics in areas like the Southwest, experts on the relationships said.

Mexican-Americans and other groups have increasingly migrated to traditionally black neighborhoods, the experts said.

“There have been enormous misunderstandings and conflicts over local resources and political representations between the two groups which simmer right below the surface and sometimes erupt,” said Albert M. Camarillo, founding director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity at Stanford.

Hispanic voters, Mr. Camarillo said, “might not go into the direction of the Obama camp.”

Hispanics made up 12 percent (roughly 300,000) of the eligible voters in NV and Hillary won more than two-thirds of those votes, including many of the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union rank-and-file – 45 percent of whom are Hispanic – who defied their union leadership and voted for Hillary instead of Obama.

In all, Hilllary got 51 percent of the vote, to Obama’s 45 percent. Edwards finished below 5 percent, which knocks him out of serious contention. While Hillary won half the votes of whites and women, Obama got 83 percent of the black vote (Hillary got 14 percent). Clearly, the Hispanic vote made the difference for Hillary.

On the Republican side, the only surprise in the race is that Ron Paul came in second, with 14 percent of the vote to Romney’s 51 percent). Romney’s rivals had ceded NV to him, in part because NV has the 4th largest population of Mormons by percentage (after UT, ID and WY), and nearly all of them (95 percent) gave their votes to Romney.

In SC, McCain edged Huckabee out by three points (33 percent to 30 percent). Huckabee no doubt wishes he had been able to get the evangelicals in SC to vote for him in a monolithic bloc as they did for Romney in NV – which would have given him more wiggle room to do without the 16 percent of the conservative and Republican vote that Thompson siphoned off.

Huckabee’s campaign is convinced that that their man would have otherwise beaten McCain. Jim Pinkerton, a senior advisor to the Huckabee campaign, tells The Stiletto via e-mail: “There’s no question that Thompson was the spoiler for us. You can do the math and see that we would have won otherwise.”

But The Stiletto isn’t sure the math adds up. More than half the state’s voters are evangelicals, and Huckabee had only a 13 point advantage over McCain amongst these voters (40 percent vs. 27 percent); in NH he split the evangelical vote with McCain and Romney. Perhaps when Thompson drops out of the race, Huckabee will be able to rack up a high enough percentage of evangelical and values vote to be competitive in the five Southern states holding a primary or caucus on Super Duper Tuesday.

The races on both sides are like half-cooled Jell-O – still fluid, but slowly starting to set.

Hillary’s in a stronger position going into FL than Obama, even if he wins in SC on the strength of black support. Different state, different race: One out of five voters are Hispanic, and they’re pretty evenly divided between the Democrat and Republican parties. Hillary will win the state (as well as CA, NY and NJ on February 5th) if she repeats the success she had in NV amongst Hispanics.

In SC McCain only got 30 percent of the Republican vote so he gets a small hop going into FL; Romney’s win in NV doesn’t much matter in FL; and Huckabee could be the spoiler this time, making inroads in McCain’s Hispanic support, as these voters see both candidates as simpático on immigration issues. And this time, McCain cannot make up the shortfall with votes from independents as FL is a closed primary.

If Rudy doesn’t win or come in second, he’s done and his campaign will have fallen victim to the same tactical error that crippled Thompson – becoming irrelevant by waiting too long to get into the fray. Rudy’s only hope now is to take a page from Romney’s book and focus exclusively on the economy since that is topmost in voters’ minds at the moment. But instead of aping Romney’s pandering and violating core Republican principles, Rudy should remind voters how he turned around the failing economy of NYC, promote his tax cut proposals and keep waving that one-page Fair And Simple Tax form in their faces.

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog.

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