Democrats' Votes Display a Racial Divide

By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Yesterday's primary voting laid bare a profound racial and ethnic divide among Democratic voters, with African Americans overwhelmingly preferring Sen. Barack Obama and Latinos largely favoring Sen. Hillary Clinton.

The results of preliminary exit polls in nine key states indicate that Obama attracted the support of two-thirds to nine-tenths of black voters, except in Clinton's home state of New York. That pattern suggests that the first-term Illinois senator's strong appeal among African Americans -- first on display in the South Carolina primary last month -- is more widespread. It also means that Clinton is not the automatic heir to the wide popularity her husband enjoyed among black voters as president.

Yesterday's contests, however, featured several states, including California, with large Hispanic populations, and they selected Clinton by smaller but consistent margins.

The divergent choices by minority voters reflect broad issues of loyalty and identity, observers said, rather than specific differences in the candidates' stances on issues. "There is so little distance between the policies, it comes down to personality, style and name recognition," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, based in Los Angeles.

"No one has said, 'This is the black Democratic agenda, the Latino Democratic agenda,' " Vargas said. "This is just, who do people know, who do they identify with, who are they comfortable with?"

Obama's popularity among black voters surfaced less than two weeks ago in South Carolina, where exit polls indicated that he had defeated Clinton by a margin of 4 to 1 among that segment of the electorate. "The South Carolina primary was decisive," said David A. Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "It sealed the deal for African Americans on Obama."

At the time of that primary, some political analysts contended that Clinton's support among African Americans had eroded sharply after former president Bill Clinton derided Obama's claim of long-held opposition to the Iraq war as a "fairy tale," and after Sen. Clinton suggested that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision "began to be realized" only after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Last night, however, analysts attributed Obama's wide margins among black voters to his own candidacy. "There is a sense of pride in who he is," said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. "His message of transformation and change is resonating."

Obama also is benefiting from a longstanding pattern in which "African American voters . . . tend to coalesce in big elections," Morial said. "It's the pursuit of a collective agenda."

Given that Obama spent comparatively scant time campaigning in Western states with large Latino populations, Bositis said it was notable that the senator picked up as much Hispanic support as he did, drawing more than one-third of Latinos in Arizona and California. "In his campaign, that is really good," he said.

Still, except in Obama's home state of Illinois, Clinton was the clear favorite among Hispanics, many of whom have felt an allegiance to the Clintons since her husband was in the White House.

"There is a real affection for the Clinton administration and a real familiarity with Senator Clinton," said Cecilia Muñoz, senior vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza. In addition, she said, Clinton "got support of the big figures in the Latino political establishment quite early," some of whom worked for her husband.

The legacy of Bill Clinton's administration was evident in yesterday's exit polls from California, where Clinton beat Obama among Hispanics by 2 to 1. "There is a lot of name support," Vargas said.

Analysts said yesterday's racial and ethnic divisions do not necessarily predict the strength of Democratic support among minorities in the general election.

If Obama were to win the Democratic nomination, Muñoz said, there is little evidence to suggest that Latinos would be reluctant to vote for a black candidate in November. Instead, the extent of their support may hinge more on who becomes the Republican nominee.

"A McCain candidacy is going to determine whether there is a horse race," she said.

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