The 'Race Race': It's Not Black and White

Call it the "Race Race."

It's been over a week since Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton declared détente in Sin City, but we're still obsessing over the role race will play in the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Part of the reason, as always, is pure, unadulterated media hype. As my NEWSWEEK colleague Evan Thomas writes in his latest column,"the press loves conflict, and so naturally gravitates towards stories of racial division." That's putting it mildly.

And part is timing: Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which meant that the candidates made headlines by appearing at King's church in Atlanta, marching in Columbia, S.C. and/or debating at a Congressional Black Caucus forum in Myrtle Beach. Not to mention the fact that 50 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in the Palmetto State is black, making Saturday's nominating contest, the next on the Democratic calendar, a referendum largely on which candidate that particular group will support. Backed more than four-to-one over Clinton by black South Carolinians, Obama currently leads by an average of 12 points.

But there's also some tricky strategy involved on all sides--and it's worth unpacking. After crunching some numbers, I'm wondering if the current CW--that the "Race Race" might come down to black and white--is relevant at all. In fact, I'm thinking it might come down to black and brown (or Latino) instead.

Right now, the chattering class is slobbering over an op-ed published yesterday in Washington, D.C.'s "The Hill," in which former Bill Clinton strategist (and current Clinton foe) Dick Morriswrites that "if blacks deliver South Carolina to Obama, everybody will know that they are bloc-voting. That... will drive white voters to Hillary Clinton." Morris's argument is that Clinton can lose South Carolina, where expectations are low, with impunity--and then head into Super Tuesday (after Bill has unsuccessfully wooed black voters) with their "unrequited" "love" seeming "so unfair that it triggers a white backlash." It's an intriguing thesis, and if white Democrats were to respond the way Morris predicts, it would definitely spell doom for Obama on Feb 5.

But I don't think they will. Maybe I'm just naive, but the white folks who participate in Democratic primaries--informed, committed liberals, mostly--seem like the last people in America who'd react to an Obama victory among blacks with active, aggressive antipathy. Sure, there are racists everywhere. But on the whole, Morris's view of the Democratic base seems way too dark to match reality.

That's not to say, though, that evidence of overwhelming black support in the Palmetto State exit polls won't present Obama with a real racial challenge on Feb. 5. It will--just with Latino voters instead of whites.

Simply put, Latino voters--unlike whites--are not voting for Obama. In Nevada, for example, they represented 15 percent of electorate--and chose Clinton over Obama 64 to 26 percent. There are two reasons for this. First off, working-class Dems tend to support Clinton, and an overwhelming majority of Latino primary voters are working class. Secondly--and more ominously for Obama--there's "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," as the New York Timeshas written. Academics and minority leaders acknowledge that there are many Latinos who simply won't pull the lever for a black candidate. If anywhere, that's where black bloc-voting would trigger a backlash.

With both groups living in large numbers in some of the key Super Tuesday states, and with most of those states skewing either black of Latino, the deciding votes on Feb. 5 could split down black-brown lines--assuming, of course, that blacks and Latinos keep voting for Clinton and Obama in the same striking ratios.

Which, all else being equal, could spell trouble for Obama.

To start, racial demographics likely won't have a make-or-break effect in 11 of the 22 Super Tuesday states--Alaska, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Dakota and Oklahoma, where black and Latino populations are equally small; Connecticut, Arkansas, New Jersey and New York, where Obama's black support will earn him extra delegates but likely not enough to overcome Clinton's immense regional advantage; and Illinois, where Clinton's lead among Latinos will have a similarly incremental effect. "Clinton-friendly" primaries in this category represent 515 delegates; Obama-friendly contests, only 185.

Then come the states where blacks greatly outnumber Latinos, giving Obama an added edge. He'll likely win Georgia and Alabama. As in South Carolina, blacks comprise more than 25 percent of the Peach and Yellowhammer State populations, while Latinos account for five percent or less. And the lanky senator should receive a boost in Delaware, Missouri and Tennessee, where blacks outnumber Latinos between five- and seven-to-one. All in all, these primaries award 360 delegates.

Next up: the heavily Latino states, like New Mexico (42.1 percent Hispanic), Arizona (25.3 percent), Colorado (17.1 percent), Utah (9.0 percent) and Idaho (7.9 percent), where blacks are outnumbered between four- and twelve-to-one and Clinton should enter with an advantage. Resting atop this heap with 441 delegates is the crown jewel of Super Tuesday: California, which is 32.4 percent Latino and only 7.4 percent black. In all, these contests account for 669 delegates--bringing the Latino-leaning, Clinton-friendly  to total 1,184. That's more than double Obama's tally of 545.

Now, this isn't a prediction of the outcome--it's merely a simplistic sketch of the terrain heading into Super Tuesday. There are plenty of complicating factors. The Democratic Party awards its delegates proportionally, meaning that Obama could pair a bunch of close seconds (California, New York) with a few big victories (Georgia, Alabama) and still come out ahead in the delegate count. John Edwards could siphon off Clinton's working-class support. Anything can happen between now and Feb. 5. And there will be plenty of racial/ethnic crossover.

That said, in Nevada Clinton won Latinos, Obama won blacks and she won the day. That's in a state where blacks and Latinos both accounted for 15 percent of the electorate. But as my rough calculations show, Latinos carry much greater weight on Feb. 5 than they did last week. Meaning that if the Nevada pattern holds, Super Tuesday could prove a lot less super than the folks in Chicago are hoping.