(June 30, 2007) — WASHINGTON — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s performance at a debate at historically black Howard University gained her overwhelming support in a focus group of minority voters that recorded their reactions throughout the 90-minute forum. But reactions of the 33 self-described minority Democrats assembled Thursday for a PBS show hosted by the debate’s moderator Tavis Smiley also revealed the complex and sometimes conflicting role that race is playing in the 2008 election.
While 26 of the 33 respondents in the focus group said Clinton had carried the debate, there remained widespread, if somewhat eroded, support for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. Black voters will have a big impact in the 2008 Democratic nomination process because many big states that have moved their primaries and caucuses to Feb. 5 or earlier have significant black populations. Democratic operative Donna Brazile estimates that 23 percent to 27 percent of the delegates to the party’s national convention next year will be black.
That’s why the debate at Howard was significant. Pundits forecast it as Obama’s opportunity to shine before a friendly audience, but Clinton was the one who stood out, according to the focus group assembled by veteran pollster Frank Luntz. The 33 watched the debate on a big-screen in a theater next to the Howard debate hall. Sixteen defined themselves as liberal, 17 as moderate. Respondents were given dials to record approval and disapproval. Their cumulative results played across Luntz’s monitors as the candidates talked: 50 was neutral, 100 was the highest positive rating.
The top score: Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio hit the mid-90s when he asserted that if Sudan had a large supply of oil, the United States would be occupying it, ending the Darfur crisis. Several focus group participants said Kucinich was an underdog worth watching. Clinton consistently scored in the 70s and 80s, higher than her seven competitors. Luntz called her performance “the perfect combination of passion and policy.”
According to a show of hands, Clinton picked up at least one Obama supporter after the debate, though slightly less than half of the group said they were ready to vote for her, roughly the same who still supported Obama. Clinton’s “people meter” soared into the low 90s when she said that if white women were suffering AIDS infection at the rate of black women, the issue would be treated as a national crisis.
“As a black woman who likes to be taken seriously for once, the fact that Hillary talked about” AIDS and black women “is the one that hit me,” said Jamila Bey, 30, a freelance journalist But not all were sold. Retired teacher Ethel Hall supports New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson because of his experience. She said Clinton gave an “Academy Award performance,” but Hall said she was looking for more.
“You can see that she has very good advice, very good presentation,” Hall said. “Words can be fine. Academy Award performances can be fine. But I have some doubts about her because she stayed with Bill.” Several respondents tried to downplay expectations for Obama before a black audience, saying he was already beloved. “I think he is a good guy and I understand the comprehensive view he has for the nation if he is elected,” said Erika Ligon, who works on federal AIDS-HIV issues. “But I don’t think he is aggressive enough in pushing it.”
Said Bey: “When someone comes into a crowd where there is nothing but love — that edge, that competitive spirit, doesn’t have to be there. I don’t think Obama was bad. I think he was flat. Hillary was dynamic. Hillary surprised me and most of my fellow participants tonight.”