(CBS) By CBSNews.com’s Michelle Peltier One of the intriguing stories of Campaign ’08 is the popularity of Hillary Clinton with black women who might be expected to support Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the first African-American to emerge as a serious contender for a major party presidential nomination. A series of CBS News polls show the New York senator has a 15-point lead over Obama among black women. Other polls have confirmed Clinton’s popularity with African-American women.
Overwhelmingly, the most frequently stated reasons women give for favoring Hillary Clinton are that they have positive feelings about her husband and his administration and they think she’s got the best shot of any of the Democrats to win against the Republicans. “Most Black women simply believe Clinton can win,” said former Gore campaign manager and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. “They loved her husband Bill and would like to see ‘a woman elected first'”
Obama hopes to find the antidote to Clinton’s less-than-secret weapon – husband Bill – with a boost from talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey, who is campaigning for Obama in three early primary states: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
But beating back Bill won’t be easy.
As much as African Americans may instinctively roll their eyes in exasperation when they hear Bill Clinton referred to as the “first black president”, it is undeniable he made an emotional connection with black America in a way that no other president has. Sheryl McCarthy is a columnist for USA Today and Newsday who often explores issues of politics and race. “Black people have always felt with Bill Clinton that he is sort of one of them, “that he cares about them, that he can relate to them,” she said.
“And after he left the White House”, McCarthy observed, “he put his office in Harlem. So black people have a real connection with Bill Clinton and may think there’s sort of a continuum with Hillary Clinton or similar sensibility with Hillary.” Mark Sawyer is director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics. He pointed out Hillary also enjoys a halo effect from the fact that black Americans felt more confident economically during the 1990’s.
“Relative to other years, other presidencies, African Americans did very well under the Clinton administration, though there’s substantial evidence that they perceive themselves to be doing a lot better than they actually were,” he said.
Hillary Clinton’s White House years also gave her a forum from which she was able to raise her own visibility. Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook is an influential African American Baptist pastor who served as a member of Bill Clinton’s Domestic Policy Council and is now active in Hillary’s presidential campaign.
“I got to know her as the first lady,” Johnson Cook said, “and I got to see her work with health reform. She took on some issues, which was very courageous and the first time a first lady really dealt with policy.” That time in the White House also put Clinton in the public eye as the long-suffering wife of a man with a roving eye. “It took a lot to hold up under that,” Johnson Cook said. “I don’t know how many women could have done that, but she did, so I give her three thumbs up.”
Success begets success, and the simple fact that Hillary Clinton is the leader of the Democratic pack in most national polls carries a lot of weight in the minds of black women.
“She looks like she has a much stronger chance of getting the nomination and getting elected than Obama. You want to go with the winner, and if that’s a woman as opposed to someone black, then you want to go with them,” said Newsday columnist McCarthy. The Rev. Johnson Cook points out that the kinds of issues Hillary has tackled in her political service also make her especially attractive to black women.
“Many of us are mothers and wives and family women, however you qualify us, and we know the track record of Senator Clinton with children, particularly poor children, and city children. When we look at someone who has a track record of voting that way and representing us and fighting for us and advocating, then she wins on the experience and the track record, hands down, no question, undeniably,” she said.