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Obama faces stiff challenges, even if Democrats unite, U. of I. expert says

6/3/2008

Brian Gaines
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Brian Gaines, professor of political science, says Barack Obama faces stiff challenges, even if Democrats unite.

Jan Dennis, Business & Law Editor
217-333-0568; jdennis@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — History shows Democrats will unite behind Barack Obama, but the party’s likely nominee faces a tougher challenge than many expect in his bid to become the nation’s first black president, a University of Illinois political expert says.

Hillary Clinton’s supporters will ultimately fall in line behind Obama despite a grueling, often-contentious marathon that finally wound toward a close Tuesday, said Brian Gaines, a political science professor and member of the U. of I.’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

“There’s a strong pattern of convention ‘bounces’ in approval, and when the Democrats wrap up their convention in August, I expect that the great majority of those Clinton supporters who currently are feeling disappointed and let down will be back on board,” Gaines said.

“However, the prolonged primary will hurt the Democrats at least a little bit,” he said. “If Clinton never does concede and campaign for Obama, the division could prove fatal to his chances to win some key states.”

Gaines says the Illinois senator already faces a stiff test against presumptive Republican nominee John McCain even though many political analysts predict Obama can’t lose, barring a major development or huge campaign gaffe.

“I see a pretty evenly divided nation, even with the Republican Party in a bit of a slump,” Gaines said.  “McCain has a history of appealing to independents, so he’s probably the ideal Republican in the current environment, where his party is down.”

“Obama’s rather bad primary performance in some key states like Pennsylvania and Ohio makes the electoral map seems much more open than it was in 2004, when we expected – and got – a near rerun of 2000 in the electoral college vote.”

The challenge for McCain will be keeping his campaign from being overshadowed by the historical allure of Obama’s first-ever major-party bid by an African-American, or by the Illinois senator’s likely significant funding edge.

“Obama is where he is in large part because his campaign has been exceptionally good at generating donations,” Gaines said. “Clinton lost to Obama in part because she couldn’t match his cash, and I’m sure the GOP is nervous on that score, too.”

Whether race will help or hurt Obama in November remains to be seen, Gaines said. An IGPA survey in March showed 48 percent of respondents thought Obama’s bid to become the first black president would win votes, while 22 percent said it would hurt.

Gaines says Obama will likely carry black voters overwhelmingly, but many large African-American populations are in states that McCain will likely win, including most of the Deep South.

“Some swing white voters are excited about the idea of having a black or mixed race president, but I don’t think anyone knows just how potent that effect will prove,” Gaines said.

Editor’s note: To contact Brian Gaines, call 217-333-4367; e-mail bjgaines@illinois.edu.