by Melissa Harris-Perry
Conservative strategists have been toying with how to use race against President Obama in this year’s election. Since Obama’s May 9 announcement supporting same-sex marriage, some Republicans have been salivating about the delicious possibility of dampening black voters’ enthusiasm for the president by casting him as out of touch with their religious sentiments.
Then the leaked Joe Ricketts plan, “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama,” revealed GOP strategists’ idea of employing “an extremely literate conservative African-American” to discredit Obama among white voters by reminding them of his link with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Thus, the black church would be both a wedge to weaken black support and a tool to discourage white supporters.
I’m a little surprised to find conservatives offering such clumsy and stale campaign game plans. They seem intent on repeating the strategic mistake made by Illinois Republicans nearly a decade ago — a mistake largely responsible for making possible the swift ascendance of Barack Obama from state senator to president.
In 2004 Obama won the Democratic primary for Illinois’ open Senate seat in a crowded field of contenders. His strongest competitors were well-financed and backed by the powerful Daley machine and by many prominent African-American elected officials and religious leaders from Chicago.
Although Obama was well liked by his constituents in Illinois’ 13th Congressional District, he had been beaten badly in 2000 when he challenged incumbent Bobby Rush in a primary for the state’s predominantly black 1st District. Against Rush, Obama faced serious racial credibility problems.
His connections to the South Side were concentrated in Hyde Park, known for its relative whiteness compared with the rest of the neighborhood. He was not a particularly fiery public speaker and lacked access to the racialized cultural narrative of defiance that Rush used throughout his career.
These factors kept Obama from beating Rush inside the majority-minority 1st District, but they were unimportant in March 2004, when he handily won the Senate primary with 53 percent of the vote against six opponents. His victory was the result of aggressive campaigning and was assisted by an eleventh-hour personal scandal surrounding his top competitor, Blair Hull. It was solidified by an enthusiastic turnout and near unanimous support from black voters, many of whom had rejected Obama just four years earlier when he ran for Congress.
Still, Illinois Republicans thought it might be possible to use race against Obama in the general election. Obama was initially matched against Jack Ryan, a young, charismatic white candidate who had some important ties to Chicago’s black community; Ryan had voluntarily left a high-paying job in the private sector to become a schoolteacher in an all-black, all-male South Side high school.
But his campaign was quickly derailed by damaging revelations from his 1999 divorce. When he withdrew, Illinois Republicans scrambled to find a replacement. In August they announced the surprising decision to import Maryland native and conservative black talk-show host Alan Keyes as their candidate.
In retrospect, the GOP’s choice may border on ridiculous, but at the time, Republicans were calculating that by tapping into the “morality vote,” Keyes could prove a troubling opponent for Obama, especially among black voters. After all, Keyes employs a rhetorical style far more consistent with black church traditions.
Like most blacks in Illinois, Keyes is the descendant of African slaves, while Obama is the child of a white woman and an African foreign student. Keyes, like most blacks in Illinois, was raised within a traditional conservative religious tradition, while Obama became a churchgoer only after marrying his relatively more religious wife.
While Obama often actively deracialized his political positions, pitching his policies as good for the state in general, Keyes actively discussed his views in the context of race. He publicly advocated reparations for American slavery and even explained his antiabortion stance as motivated by the idea that abortion is racial genocide (“so, the people who are supporting that position [pro-choice] are actually supporting the systematic extermination of black America”).
In many ways, it was Keyes who had access to important black racial tropes and political/cultural practices. But come November 2004, it was Obama who was embraced as the candidate of choice among black voters in Illinois, winning 92 percent of them. In 2008, of course, Obama went on to capture 95 percent of the black vote nationally and also garnered a larger percentage of the white vote than either Gore or Kerry had.
All of this suggests that racebaiting and race-divisive tactics won’t be successful in 2012. Black voters won’t be easily divided from the first black president running against a white opponent.
President Obama’s stance on marriage equality may not be shared by a majority of black voters, but it is unlikely to negate their support for his re-election. In fact, a recent Pew poll showed that 16 percent of black respondents viewed the president more favorably after his announcement, compared with 13 percent who viewed him less favorably; 68 percent said it had no impact.
Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign can’t help us predict how racebaiting strategies will affect white voters. We do know that in 2008, Obama’s connection to Reverend Wright only momentarily disrupted his campaign. Invoking Wright as a scary black, radical mentor reinforces the opinions of those who see the president as extremist and foreign but has so far proven ineffective in moving the opinions of most ordinary undecided voters.
It kind of makes you feel sorry for Joe Ricketts. He’s got tens of millions to spend in his crusade to defeat the president, and he’s getting pitched ideas that even casual observers recognize as yesterday’s failed strategies.
Melissa Harris-Perry is professor of political science at Tulane University, where she is founding director of the Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. She is the author of Sister Citizen: A Text for Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn’t Enough, and a contributor to MSNBC.