How Will Democrats' Shifting Base Effect '08 Race?

ByBarbara Pinto

Jan. 25, 2007 — -- For the first time in history, a woman, a Hispanic and a black candidate all have realistic chances of winning the White House.

In the past few weeks, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is Hispanic, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, a woman, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who is black, have all announced their intentions to run for president in 2008.

It's exactly the type of diverse image the Democratic party has long tried to cultivate. "It's a big change for a party customarily dominated by white men," says Paul Green, director of Roosevelt University's School of Policy Studies. "It definitely reflects the changing demographics of America."

In 1972, New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm, who was black, launched a largely symbolic campaign for president.

More than a decade later, New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro was the Democratic vice presidential nominee.

Civil rights activist and Baptist minister Rev. Jesse Jackson won five presidential primaries in 1984 and 11 in 1988. Still, Jackson never secured the nomination.

But this year is different.

"The two front-runners are a woman and an African-American. It kind of sets the whole thing on its ear," says Republican pollster Neil Newhouse.

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll gives Clinton an early lead among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent voters. Of those voters, 41 percent said they favored Clinton, while 17 percent chose Obama.

Among black voters, 60 percent supported Clinton to Obama's 20 percent.

Analysts say at this early stage, poll numbers may not be all that predictive. After all, Bill Clinton began his White House bid with single-digit support and little name recognition. Now, the former president's popularity seems to give his wife an early boost.

"It's safe to say that Hillary's early strength is more due to her husband's legacy than with the work she has done so far," says Newhouse.

Analysts agree that substance and ideology will play a much bigger role than either race or gender.

"This is where we start judging people not on gender and ethnicity, but on their qualifications," says pollster Fernand Amandi, whose firm specializes in tracking public opinion among Hispanic voters.

"I think the NASCAR dads are just like the soccer moms," he says. "They all are looking for good government."

The Democrats' success in the 2006 midterm elections was fueled in no small part by the so-called Blue Dogs -- moderate to conservative House members elected in mostly Republican-leaning districts.

Among them, Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, a Democrat who boasted of his "A" rating by the National Rifle Association. Nearly 20 percent of the newly-elected Democrats fall into that category.

Given that move toward the center, says political consultant Tom Serafin, the Democratic presidential candidates will need to actively court Blue Dog voters, without ignoring the party's more traditional liberal base.

"Hillary is doing it," Serafin says, "but she's catching a lot of flak from both sides."

While a number of '08 bids have been launched, the candidates' campaigns have yet to fully take shape. But, in a political environment where the nation seems ripe for change, Serafin says voters are searching beyond the "old Washington guard" for new ideas and fresh faces.

"The white hairs have done a good job of making us want to look elsewhere," he says.

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