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As a white candidate, Obama would have had a difficult time, if not an impossible one, corralling the African-American vote, which has become such a crucial part of his coalition. Instead, Clinton would have been the overwhelming favorite of black voters (as indeed she was), and they almost certainly would have remained in her corner without an African-American candidate in the race.
While the African-American community would not have turned out as heavily for Clinton as they have for Obama, black voters, combined with the New York Senator’s appeal among women, Hispanics and older voters, might well have made her unbeatable.
But let’s assume that Clinton is so polarizing that she would have inevitably generated a serious threat for the Democratic nomination. In that case, it’s unclear whether Obama or former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (or even someone else) would have been that candidate.
Edwards, after all, also was a “change” candidate, and he started with the single strongest base of support in Iowa.
With his Southern roots and style, Edwards had appeal in the African-American community. He, not Obama, would have been Clinton’s main opponent in South Carolina on Jan. 26 and in Alabama and Georgia on Feb. 5, had the fight for the nomination lasted that long. And Edwards’ message might have been more upbeat and less demagogic had his campaign been able to position the former North Carolina Senator as the “change” alternative to Clinton.
But wouldn’t Obama’s oratorical skills have made him a serious contender for the nomination anyway? Maybe. But there is no guarantee that he would have caught fire. Again, what made him so noteworthy early in the campaign — and so difficult to attack throughout the Democratic contest — was that he stood out from other candidates, past and present.
Observing that Obama benefited during the contest from his skin color doesn’t mean it’s always a benefit to be black, that the Illinois Democrat’s race doesn’t have a downside politically, or that he doesn’t deserve to be where he is. And it certainly doesn’t mean he is defined solely by his skin color.
Clinton also has benefited from certain attributes, including her gender and her husband. And is anyone certain that she would be the United States Senator from New York, and a contender for the presidency, if she had not married Bill Clinton?
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of The Rothenberg Political Report.