The Race is On

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both came out of Saturday’s Nevada primary with a ‘sort of’ win. Clinton took the popular vote, winning the huge majority of women and Hispanic votes, according to exit polls. But in the mesmerisingly obscure calculus of the US primary system, Obama walked away with one more delegate than Clinton, enabling both camps to claim a victory of sorts.

The race is now neck and neck between those two leaders, with John Edwards’s campaign appearing to falter.

Next up is South Carolina, with Florida hot on its tails – the last two contests before the avalanche of primaries on Super Tuesday.

With women and Hispanics appearing to be locked in, Clinton headed here to Harlem to try to make some more ground on the black vote. She spoke at the Sunday morning service at the historical Abyssinian Baptist Church and the church’s leader, Reverend Calvin Butts, endorsed her.

‘I don’t see race as an issue,’ Butts called to the huddled crowd of reporters and supporters who had camped outside the church for two hours in temperatures that lingered at around -5°C. ‘I hope you won’t make it one, either,’ he concluded, as he passed the microphone to a beaming Clinton.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

That may be the official line of the candidates and those who have endorsed them, but Clinton would not have come to Harlem if it were true. The black vote will be pivotal in South Carolina. Clinton needs to take some of that support away from Obama to carry South Carolina, and she will be hoping that Rev Butts’s endorsement convinces any black voters who haven’t yet decided between the two.

From the press reports, Sunday’s event seemed to be a step in the right direction. It generated photos in the New York Times of Clinton surrounded by black supporters. But the demographic of the people who actually waited for her in the cold told a different story.

Nancy Rubino traveled to Harlem from her home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a substantially wealthier neighbourhood. She is the director of a college, and said that Clinton’s education policies were one reason for her support.

Caroline Kreuger schlepped down from Washington Heights, way up in Manhattan’s north-west. It’s a low-income, mainly Hispanic area. ‘I really believe in her as a candidate and as a person,’ she said. Education and healthcare were her biggest concerns.

Wilfred Morfa is originally from the Dominican Republic, and now also lives in Washington Heights. ‘She has a closer relationship with the DR than the other candidates,’ he said.

The Clinton camp had also roped in two 19-year-old Korean tourists to hold placards. In rudimentary English, they explained that they had wanted to come to see Clinton because they were so excited about the possibility of a woman president. They were sincere, but obviously not locals.

In other words, the actual supporters who showed up for Clinton on Sunday were exactly as her base is described: white women and Hispanics. Most of them not from Harlem.

By contrast, about a dozen Obama supporters turned out in a ‘sort of’ counter protest. All were black, and they chanted ‘We live here! We live here!’

Some were incensed about Clinton’s appearance at Abyssinian, the first Baptist Church in New York State, where the father of civil rights legend, Adam Clayton Powell Jr, used to preach. ‘The only time Hillary Clinton comes to Harlem is when she comes to black churches,’ said Calvin Hutt, who lives four blocks from Abyssinian Baptist. ‘She’s not going to steal Harlem. She can cry all she wants. It’s not going to be like New Hampshire here.’

Clinton in fact visits Harlem regularly, and Bill Clinton has offices on the main drag, 125th street.

When the parishioners finally emerged out the side door, through the phalanx of security guards and into the bitter winds, the press pack was still clustered together like penguins in the Antarctic, waiting for Clinton to emerge through the front door.

A striking thing about many of the congregants was their stunning fur coats, glossy and lustrous enough to draw attention on the affluent Upper East Side, let alone in the heart of Harlem. ‘I’m for Hillary,’ said Helen Tomlinson. ‘I support Obama as Vice President.’

Another church-member said she hasn’t decided, but at this stage is favouring Obama.

Clinton’s efforts to win over black voters here have had mixed results, and there’s no guarantee that they will work in time for Saturday’s poll. New York, along with 22 other States, votes just ten days after that. With a massive 281 delegates, New York is crucial for Clinton, especially since she is a Senator from this State. But more important will be California, with 441 delegates, where Clinton’s solid backing from Hispanics will very likely see her win comfortably.

In the contest for black votes, it seems that Obama has more to lose than Clinton stands to gain.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.