Oprah is the New Jesse

Overheard last week at the American Presidential Poker Championships:

Senator Barack Obama: “I will see your Bill Clinton, and raise you an Oprah.”

Tick, tock, tick, tock.

Senator Hillary Clinton:  “I will see your Oprah, and raise you a Colin Powell.”

Welcome to the new way Democratic presidential candidates court the African-American vote. 

Even as recently as four years ago, Democratic candidates had to genuflect before the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, accede to their demands, and get their blessing before they felt comfortable going before black voters.  Jackson and Sharpton were the omnipresent and unavoidable intermediaries.  There was no way around them.  Until this year.

Hillary thought she had the black vote locked up.  After all, she had what she thought was the trump card: her husband, whom the poet Toni Morrison once described as “our first black president.”  Hillary assumed she could just send Bill out to make a few speeches to some black groups and those voters would line up for her.

But that was before an actual black man got in the race.  Obama has made a heartfelt appeal to black voters, setting in motion a freewheeling competition Clinton neither expected nor can play in on the same level.

As comedian Chris Rock warned the Obama crowd last week at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, “You’d be real embarrassed if he won and you wasn’t down with it. You’d say, ‘Aw, man, I can’t call him now. I had that white lady. What was I thinking?’”

Rock was getting at a point Michelle Obama made a few weeks ago, when she suggested that African-Americans still lacked the confidence to believe that a black man could actually win the nomination of a major party.  She said there was a "natural fear of possibility" and that there were times in her life when she was denigrated or told she wasn’t "ready."  She went on to say that there is "always that doubt in the minds of people of color" and encouraged them to shake off "that fear.  That’s what we want to show our community," she said. ". . . We can do this too."

One of the greatest examples of black success, Oprah Winfrey, has become Hillary’s worst nightmare.  Oprah (known by one name, like Hillary) will begin campaigning for Obama this week in the critical early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.  In a panic, the Clinton Team hauled out the “first black president” to try to preempt the coming buzz surrounding Oprah.

It’s not working.  Even before Oprah sets foot in these primary states, polling shows that Obama is gaining on her among blacks.  Clinton still leads in the African-American community, but she ought to be paying close attention to a common phenomenon in polling.  For decades, when pollsters asked white voters if they would ever vote for a black candidate, most said they would.  But then, when they actually went into the voting booths, there was a 10-20% drop off of support for the black candidates.  Pollsters say that people will tell them one thing to avoid looking discriminatory or biased, but they vote another way.

For Obama, the situation may be reversed.  When black voters are called, they may be telling pollsters that they are going to vote for Clinton because of her name recognition and “experience.”  But some pollsters suspect that when African-Americans actually vote, many more will be pulling the lever for Obama — for the simple reason Chris Rock identified.

This is why Clinton and Obama are falling over themselves to score endorsements from major black personalities.  Bill Clinton is still highly popular among many blacks, but he’s no Oprah Winfrey, who appeals to blacks and women of all races.  Hillary tried to out-Oprah Oprah by telling a predominantly black audience that “as soon as” she’s elected president, she’ll be calling on Colin Powell.  (Of course, she never bothered to ask Powell.  According to the New York Times’ political blog, Powell’s assistant said, “He’s not been in touch with Senator Clinton in regards to this, and has no comment.”)

What’s remarkable about this is that neither Clinton nor Obama seem all that interested in securing the support of Jackson or Sharpton.  Sure, the Reverends have been supportive of the Clintons in the past, but with a black man running, they thought they could play the two candidates off each other and get as many promises from each as possible.  But it hasn’t worked that way this time.  Obama had dinner with Sharpton last week and looks like he’d like his support, but he’s not going to compromise himself to get it.  And in an attempt to get Clinton’s and Obama’s attention, Jackson said last week that former Senator John Edwards is the most responsive to minorities.  Both Reverends expect Clinton and Obama to beg for their support, but the candidates seem more interested in Oprah (who has endorsed Obama) and Colin Powell (who is rumored to be getting close to Hillary).  This is the beginning of the end for Jesse and Al, and they know it.  Oprah is now more influential — both for Democratic candidates and the black voters they court –than Jackson and Sharpton combined.  The old game of having to go through them to get to blacks is now over.

Obama understands this, which is why he never played ball with them.  He’s let them come to him, rather than the other way around.  His principled stand not to pander may still hurt him, but he is wise to have Oprah’s endorsement rather than Charlie Rangel’s.