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Framing The Clinton Legacy: Mending Fences with Black Voters

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (N.Y.) concession speech tomorrow afternoon in Washington will be one of the most closely watched -- and eternally analyzed -- political addresses in modern history.

Following her widely-panned speech on Tuesday night, Clinton must show that she is ready to unify the party behind Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) while simultaneously beginning to define how history will treat her bid for the Democratic nomination.

(The Fix will be watching the speech from his heavily air-conditioned basement and will offer an analysis of the address in this space tomorrow afternoon.)

The first part of the equation -- offering words of support for Obama and pledging to help him win in the fall -- is the easy part. The more difficult challenge will be the legacy-setting portion of the address -- as Clinton seeks to begin the process of repairing damage done to her (and her husband's) brand over the course of the past 18 months.

New polling conducted by Gallup shows that the Clintons have much work to do -- particularly in the black community.

In the survey, which was conducted in late May and early June, 58 percent of black voters felt favorably inclined toward Clinton while 36 percent felt unfavorably. Compare that to to her ratings just one year ago in Gallup polling -- an 84 percent favorable rating among African Americans compared to a minuscule 10 percent unfavorable.

That trend is confirmed in the Post's own polling. In a survey conducted in mid-April, Clinton's fav/unfav among black voters was 68/32, a steady decline from a Post poll in January (81/17) and a far cry from where her numbers stood in February 2007 among black voters (85/11).

More striking even than the overall numbers were the intensity measures. Back in February of last year, 53 percent of black voters felt "strongly" favorable about Clinton while just five percent felt strongly unfavorable toward her. In the April survey, roughly half as many black voters (27 percent) described their feelings toward Clinton as strongly favorable while more than triple (17 percent) said they felt strongly unfavorably to her.

The approval numbers for former President Bill Clinton followed a similar downward pattern. In February 2007, 86 percent of black voters viewed the former president favorably while just 13 percent saw him in an unfavorable light. By April 2008, 67 percent of black voters felt favorably toward Bill Clinton while 32 percent described their feelings as unfavorable toward the former chief executive.

The slippage is remarkable given that, going into this presidential race, black voters were expected to form one of the main pillars of Clinton's support. Bill Clinton enjoyed warm relations with the black community throughout his presidency and was famously described by author Toni Morrison thusly in a 1998 New Yorker piece: "White skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime."

The emergence of Obama as a legitimate contender to be the first black person ever selected as the presidential nominee of either party immediately complicated Clinton's presidential calculations.

Black voters expressed initial excitement about Obama but for months stayed behind Clinton -- a phenomenon that launched hundreds (if not thousands) of news stories.

Then came South Carolina's primary. While many within Hillary Clinton's inner circle were prepared to cede the state to Obama due to its sizable black population, the former president would not hear of it -- campaigning throughout the state in the runup to the late January vote.

The result, by any objective measure, was a disaster for her campaign, and seems largely responsible for the declining poll numbers for both of the Clintons among black voters.

Tomorrow, Hillary Clinton begins the repair work that will be crucial to her political future -- whatever that may be. To hold any sort of national office -- president, vice president or even Senate Majority Leader -- Clinton must find a way to bridge the chasm that has opened between the former First Couple and African American voters during this primary process.

Post polling director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 6, 2008; 5:15 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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