A Shift Toward Obama Is Seen Among Blacks

Amid Clinton signs put up by a beauty salon's owner in Charleston, Ethel Marshall said she backs Barack Obama.
Amid Clinton signs put up by a beauty salon's owner in Charleston, Ethel Marshall said she backs Barack Obama. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008

CHARLESTON, S.C., Jan. 20 -- Three months ago, beauty shop owner Shanaya Hammond was a somewhat reluctant supporter of Sen. Barack Obama. A campaign aide persuaded her to put two Obama posters in the window of her Passion Slice salon and she planned to vote for him, but, she allowed, "I won't be mad if Hillary wins."

No more. She is all in for Obama now, having been convinced after the senator from Illinois won the Iowa Democratic caucuses that America is ready to vote for a black man for president. "I was like, okay, it's happening for us," said Hammond, 32, a single mother of three. "At first, you're wishing, you're hoping and praying, and now it's like, okay, we have a chance. Other people are willing to vote for him."

Hammond sits at the crossroads of Saturday's Democratic primary here. She's a woman, and therefore critical to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's hopes of winning, and she's African American, and thus crucial to Obama's chances.

The firming of her feelings for Obama reflects a shift in support that started with his victory in Iowa on Jan. 3. Three months ago, when The Washington Post first interviewed Hammond and several other African American women in this state, Clinton (N.Y.) had the support of 54 percent of black women nationally, compared with 35 percent for Obama. But Obama is now winning 60 percent of the black vote, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.

African Americans are expected to make up as much as half of the electorate in South Carolina's primary, and black women as much as 30 percent of it.

As with women in general, there is a generational gap among black women. At Hair Menders salon, a short drive from Passion Slice, owner Margaret Bell, 63, has been unmoved by Obama's gains. She has backed Clinton all along and explains her support in terms almost straight from the candidate's mouth.

"I'm voting for Hillary because she's the only one who can go into that White House on Day One and get things done," Bell said. "He can't say that," she adds of Obama.

Bell's customers are mostly older, and most lean toward Clinton. But the majority of the twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who come through Hammond's door plan to vote for Obama.

"I think a lot of older people have the idea that America is not ready for a black president, and it would be easier to slide a woman in there," said Kristan Murray, 27, who was in Passion Slice for a wash and trim. "That doesn't leave room for a revolutionary mentality."

African American women have long been a demographic coveted by the candidates, who have called upon celebrity surrogates, such as Oprah Winfrey for Obama and Maya Angelou for Clinton, to win them over. Obama has dispatched his wife, Michelle, to appeal to black women in appearances across South Carolina. Both candidates have granted interviews to Essence magazine, and Clinton recently made an appearance on the talk show hosted by supermodel Tyra Banks for what the latter called "girl talk."

Both candidates have tried to engage in a little girl talk, sending campaign workers into beauty salons to reach black women.

Obama's campaign has employed "the B&B strategy" -- sending organizers into the same beauty and barber shops every couple of weeks to spread the word and elicit pledges for votes.

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