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Commentary: Barack Obama's black wakeup call

  • Story Highlights
  • Martin: It was assumed Obama would garner a lion's share of the black vote
  • Martin: Clinton is drawing strong support from black voters
  • Martin: Obama should concentrate on South Carolina primary
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By Roland S. Martin
CNN Contributor
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(CNN) -- If the advisers around Sen. Barack Obama want to continue to delude themselves into thinking they have lots of time for black voters to get around to figuring out their candidate's record on issues they care about, then the latest CNN poll surely must be the kind of slap in the face to bring them back to reality.


Martin says Obama must address issues important to black voters if he hopes to succeed in South Carolina.

There was a general assumption when Obama announced for the presidency that he was going to garner a lion's share of the black vote. In a normal presidential race, sure. But with Sen. Hillary Clinton in the race, the reality of the affection -- real and perceived -- that black folks have for the Clintons is clearly what has her storming out to a strong lead over Obama.

According to the CNN poll, Clinton leads Obama among black registered Democrats, 57 percent to 33 percent. Black women are backing Clinton to the tune of 68 percent compared with 25 percent for Obama. Black men favor Obama 46 percent to 42 percent for Clinton. The poll has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 6.5 percent.

On multiple occasions when I've interviewed him, Obama has reassured folks that his track record speaks for itself. He says with Clinton being on the national stage for 15 years, she has longevity. But he said he's confident black voters will come around the more they know about what he has done. That's nice and sounds good, but what the Obama campaign has clearly refused to recognize is that black voters are emotional, and you must speak to their core in order to reach them.

Obama has at times spoken passionately about issues blacks care about -- the war, education, civil rights, social justice issues -- but all too often he has avoided engaging in a way that touches the consciousness of black voters. Voters have told me that he's sometimes sterile and not offering the kind of passion they desire.

But there are other reasons why black voters have been ambivalent about an Obama candidacy, and it's clearly having an affect on him being able to build momentum to challenge Clinton.

Reason number one: The belief that white voters will not accept Obama so a vote for him will be a waste. Forget the fact that there are thousands of black elected officials in the country. African Americans running for the White House are not the norm, especially one with his credentials. This is a real concern, and one that can't be overlooked and dismissed easily.

Reason number two: Obama will be "taken out" if he wins. The New York Times had a piece over the weekend where a black woman essentially said her way of protecting Obama from harm is by not voting for him. Sounds nutty, but again, it's real, and it's been said many times. I've heard this "fear factor" time and time again, and it speaks to the deep concern blacks have that America has not advanced enough to be comfortable with a black man in the White House.

The third reason: Obama the policy wonk doesn't mesh with black voters. This is not to suggest that black voters don't care about issues -- they do. But Obama has a certain emotional detachment that has turned off many of them. You can't find one major "moment" where black voters have embraced him and showered him with love. I was highly critical of his performance at the June debate at Howard University because that was his crowd. But he failed to ignite the room. One HUGE Obama supporter told me that his daughter went to the event backing him, and came out loving Clinton.

So what now, pack or go home?

No. He has an opportunity to make a move, but it must be done now.

First, the campaign must stop being afraid to put Michelle Obama on the road and let her rip. She has to be his major weapon in appealing to black women.

Second, having Oprah Winfrey's endorsement is one thing, but they must get her on the road. It will also help if Obama touts other black women who are backing him. Recently, former "Young and the Restless" star Victoria Rowell was stumping for Clinton in South Carolina, and other high-profile black women have been out front supporting her.

Obama did just pick up the endorsement of Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts, and only the second elected black governor in history. Yes, he's a former top Clinton administration official. But his state has a small black population, so that really doesn't help Obama with black voters.

Lastly, Obama must forget the national polls and focus solely on South Carolina. Nearly 50 percent of the Democratic Party primary voters there are black, and research shows that 40 percent of black women haven't made up their minds in the state. Even though research conducted by the Clinton campaign reveals that Obama's message isn't resonating with blacks, research done by the Obama camp shows that when black women have met and been engaged by Obama, he's been able to convert them into supporters.

Bottom line: Low black support means Obama is toast.

If his campaign keeps playing it safe, hoping not to alienate white voters, he'll likely be on the campaign trail next fall.

But he'll be stumping for Clinton.

Roland S. Martin is a nationally award-winning journalist and CNN contributor. Martin is studying to receive his master's degree in Christian communications at Louisiana Baptist University, and he is the author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith." You can read more of his columns at

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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