So much for the post-race horse race. The exit polls in New Hampshire were accurate for the Republicans and for the second-tier Democrats. The only miscalculation was the amount of support for Obama. That miscalculation is about race. Iowa caucus-goers stood by Barack, in part, because when voting with their bodies, in front of their neighbors, Iowans are held accountable. In the quiet, solitary space of the voting booth, some New Hampshire voters abandoned Barack.
The reasons are not simple. Some media believe that women voters want a woman president. But there is not a substantial gender gap in American politics. Historically, white women voters are as likely to be Democrats as Republicans; as likely to vote for male candidates as for female; and as likely to describe themselves as conservative or liberal. It is not as simple as gender solidarity. Some observers will argue that naked racism explains Tuesday’s result. But that argument ignores the thousands of white women and men who built Obama’s local organization in New Hampshire and worked tirelessly on his behalf for months.
The New Hampshire results are a reminder of why Obama’s strategy is so new and difficult. He is asking voters to believe that although he has a “funny” name and does not look like them, he is nonetheless like them. He is asking voters to peer through the veil of America’s racial history and actually see him. It is a hard thing to do. When Hillary Clinton’s eyes welled up with the strain of the campaign, she evoked immediate recognition from many white women of her generation. “Oh, yes,” they thought, “I remember feeling like that.” Former President Bill Clinton rallied angrily for his wife, as he claimed that the media were picking on her while being soft on Obama. This is a familiar American narrative of race and gender, and it resonated with thousands of New Hampshire voters. Clinton cried about being attacked in the debates, but there are no public tears shed for the strain Obama must feel as a result of death threats, which caused the doubling of his Secret Service detail.
I am mad about it. I am mad because on the night that Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses, I was in a crummy hotel room in Manchester, N.H. I was there with two dozen college students who came to work the primaries and see American democracy in action. Many of them were propelled to their first political action as a result of Obama’s campaign. I also brought my 5-year-old daughter, Parker, because I wanted her to take part in this historic election. When the Obama family took the stage in Iowa to perform the traditional presidential wave, I could not resist waking Parker from her sleep so that she could watch Barack, Michelle, and their daughters. “Look at the beautiful black girls who might get to live in the White House,” I told her as I held her sleepy head in my hands. Whatever authenticity anxieties the American media conjured last year, Barack’s Iowa triumph was unreservedly a moment of racial pride. Parker spent the rest of the week proudly carrying an Obama rally sign all over New Hampshire. Last night, I had to explain Obama’s loss. She wanted to know if his daughters were as sad as she was.
I know that many black Americans are discouraged and worry that New Hampshire’s results mean that America is not ready for a black president. What I know for sure is that if black Americans are going to be relevant to American elections, they must rally behind Obama now. Most white voters who indicated an Obama preference in New Hampshire were sincere and enduring in their support. Obama is the most viable black candidate in American history. Tens of thousands of white voters are in the Obama coalition for the long haul. Black Americans can now demonstrate their electoral power by making this a winning coalition. Starting with South Carolina, black America will have a chance to throw its full enthusiastic weight behind Obama.
In 2003, I was living in Chicago and watched Obama secure the Democratic nomination in the Illinois Senate race. The powerful Daley machine and its black allies in pulpits and municipal offices throughout the city encouraged African-Americans to reject Barack and support the machine candidates. But black voters repudiated these old tactics and joined Obama’s multiracial, intergenerational coalition in record numbers. They handed him the Democratic nomination, elected him to the U.S. Senate, and generated the momentum that initially propelled him to national prominence, thereby making his presidential bid possible. In this way, Obama’s campaign is already the result of black voters who chose him in the face of impossible odds and entrenched power.