The striking thing about that remarkable 20,000-strong turnout for Barack Obama’s campaign stop at the Target Center Saturday was not just the sheer number of Obama believers, but the wide range of them. Though the audience was mostly white — this being Minnesota, after all — the arena was full of African-Americans, African immigrants and refugees, Latinos, and old and young folks alike.
More than one person cracked that the crowd resembled what would normally be found at a Timberwolves game, but that wasn’t really true — there were far more black people, and certainly a bigger number of other persons of color. For the first time in presidential politics, Obama is a candidate who can at once benefit from and transcend race.
As significant as the stop was, state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, had her sights set on a campaign jaunt earlier in the day that was to her at least as important. Torres Ray, the state’s first Latina legislator, and Javier Morillo-Alicea, head of the local Service Employees International Union chapter, were headed to Worthington, Minn., to canvass the Hispanic vote for Obama in Tuesday’s DFL caucuses.
“There are 250 registered Latino voters there,” Torres Ray says. “And we want them all.”
In recent weeks, the tag on Obama is that he can’t rally enough Latinos to overtake Hillary Rodham Clinton in primary season. But the campaign believes this is largely a creation of the white media, and that despite stereotypes, Hispanic voters will see enough of themselves in the black candidate’s biography to support him. In fact, the campaign is betting on taking a chunk of voters of color to tip the scales in Obama’s favor.
In a teleconference with reporters Tuesday, Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe made a point of noting “support from Latino officials have taken off for us,” and that’s certainly the case in Minnesota, with Torres Ray and Morillo-Alicia being joined by the likes of state Reps. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, and Willie Dominguez, DFL-Minneapolis, in supporting Barack. Plouffe also pointed out that the campaign had the kind of groundwork going in all the Super Tuesday states to do well in rural areas, like Worthington, where an increasing number of Latinos live.
More than that, the Obama campaign has aggressively sought the support of African immigrants and refugees, which makes up a growing voting bloc in Minnesota. Somalis, in particular, helped Mayor R.T. Rybak’s successful re-election bid in 2005 and Keith Ellison’s congressional win a year later.
“It started for us in Iowa, where we found that it wasn’t necessarily a voting bloc, but every place has some of dynamic where we can engage people of color in the process,” says Michael Blake, a political adviser for the campaign who has been doing outreach in communities of color in Minnesota after doing the same for Obama in Iowa and South Carolina. “Even if it’s a few percentage points, it can flip [a] senate district, or maybe a whole state. Iowa’s our template.”
A truly big tent
Blake is implying, of course, that Iowa is 95 percent white, but Obama clearly counted on some minority votes to put him on top there. Minnesota is similar in that Obama can’t count on voters of color alone. But perhaps the greatest strength for the senator here and elsewhere is the feeling that he’s the one candidate truly offering big-tent politics.
And what a big tent it is. Obama is actively courting independents and even Republicans, as he did at the Target Center. Before everyone had been let into the Target Center, officials with the Minneapolis police and fire departments were grappling with a capacity problem. When was the last time an arena was over-ticketed for a political event? Notably, African-American Muslim Rep. Keith Ellison stood on stage while Jane Freeman, the 87-year-old white widow of former Gov. Orville Freeman, introduced Obama. Certainly no other candidate can boast that broad range of appeal.
But what is the support like on the street? “It’s all anecdotal, and I don’t have the specifics to back it, but there’s a certain level of excitement in African circles about Obama’s campaign,” says Jamal Abdulahi, a Somali from Eagan who worked on John Edwards’ campaign until the senator dropped out last week.
Abdulahi, echoing the observations of many local Africans, points out that the Clinton campaign is not nearly as visible. “I know people who tell me they’ve gotten four fliers from Obama,” he says. “And they’ve gotten nothing from Hillary. We just haven’t seen her campaign.”
Nimco Ahmed, a Somali who works as an aide to Minneapolis City Council member Robert Lilligren, is volunteering for the Obama campaign and claims that word is spreading. “It’s not just Somalis, but local Liberians, Kenyans, Oromo,” she says. “It’s a lot of different types of Africans, and people are pulling in their families and friends.”
Latinos, however, may make up a larger voting bloc, but one that may prove more elusive. Torres Ray, who is Colombian, admits that there is some truth to “the stereotype that there is some racism between Latino and black communities.”
Still, she points out that any political event for a person of color in Minneapolis draws folks from all walks. “Almost every event is multi-cultural, and we’re seeing that now,” she says. And perhaps the best litmus test for Obama comes from Torres Ray herself, who as a woman politician, might be drawn to Clinton rather than Obama. “She inspires me as an intellectual woman,” Torres Ray says. “But he inspires me as a person of color who has shared a similar experience as me.”
Translating to delegates and votes
Whether any of this multi-cultural feel-good vibe translates to anything come Tuesday is quite another matter. After all, many people in these groups are not politically experienced, and in citywide elections African-American turnout in Minneapolis is notoriously poor. And a caucus might not be as enticing as a general election to many political neophytes.
Then again, you don’t have to be a registered voter to caucus, and as Ahmed notes, “Somalis are very political in general, and there are numbers there for people to come out and make a difference,” something that Rybak and Ellison certainly found to be true. “In my last six years of being politically active, I haven’t seen anything like this before,” Ahmed continues. “It’s not just that people know about Barack, but I haven’t seen them pay this type of attention before.”
In fact, as Torres Ray and Blake point out, Iowa may have sent the strongest message to voters of color. “We found that in South Carolina, people figured out that Iowa was not a fluke,” says Blake, who is African-American. “There’s a mental shift that happens in the African-American community when a candidate like this looks viable. It’s generated genuine excitement.”
Another factor come Tuesday is that nationally, Obama is trending upward. A Washington Post-ABC news poll released over the weekend showed Obama and Clinton virtually locked with Democratic voters, with Clinton leading 47 to 43 percent. Among white Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, Clinton is favored 52 percent to 38 percent, while Obama leads among black voters 62 percent to 30 percent. White men are evenly divided between Clinton and Obama, though white women back Clinton by more than 20 percentage points.
Locally, it’s not clear whether Obama can attract enough old-guard DFLers to take the state, but the endorsement this weekend from Rep. Jim Oberstar struck many as the most important endorsement yet. If Obama can get outstate votes and keep his minority core in the cities, he’s a lock.
But that’s a big “if,” and Abdulahi cautions against painting all with one broad brush. “I personally have not found things that have resonated,” Abdulahi offers. “There’s only a minority of us who truly follow the issues, even though everyone seems to say we are proud of Obama.”
But now that his man Edwards has dropped out, Abdulahi is not a shoo-in for Obama. “I’m leaning towards him, but I’m not sure,” he concludes. “I’m torn between caucusing for him and staying home.”
G.R. Anderson Jr., a former reporter and senior editor for City Pages, covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.