Rep. Artur Davis talks about Obama’s numbers in Alabama

Published 9:13 pm Thursday, November 6, 2008

Rep. Artur Davis of Birmingham might need a microscope if he’s looking at Tuesday’s presidential results for evidence that Alabama is ready to elect a black Democrat for governor.

Obama took just 39 percent of the vote in Alabama. And in a state that is about 70 percent white, an Associated Press exit poll found that just one in 10 whites supported Obama — a remarkably low level that continues a decades-long slide for Democratic presidential nominees in the state and was lower than John Kerry’s performance four years ago.

But Davis insists he’s not reading too much into Barack Obama’s poor showing in the state, where Davis served as his campaign head. Davis said the presidential results aren’t necessarily comparable to his potential 2010 gubernatorial bid.

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Glen Browder, a former Democratic congressman and state lawmaker who teaches political science at Jacksonville State University, said the numbers may be bleak but do not necessarily tell the whole story.

“It’s some pretty hard material for Artur Davis to chew on,” said Browder, who lost a 1996 U.S. Senate bid. “If he was looking for some startling encouragement, it’s not there.”

“But Barack Obama looked at the numbers from the previous elections and there was no startling encouragement for him when he started his campaign,” Browder added. “Artur Davis can say the same thing … he’s demonstrated that he, like Barack Obama, can break some barriers.”

Davis, a moderate Democrat and Harvard-educated former federal prosecutor, has made it no secret that he’s strongly considering a bid to succeed outgoing Republican Gov. Bob Riley in 2010. He has pointed to the success of Obama and black centrists like former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee, who narrowly lost a Senate campaign there two years ago.

In an interview the day after Tuesday’s election, Davis said he wasn’t discouraged by the Alabama results because Democratic presidential nominees have performed poorly in Alabama for years. He noted that Democrat Don Siegelman won the governor’s mansion with almost 60 percent of the vote in 1998, two years before Al Gore got just 42 percent in the state’s presidential race.

He also dismissed the suggestion that race had anything to do with Obama’s showing, noting that Obama took about the same overall share of the vote as Kerry did in 2004. He said he was skeptical of exit polls showing that just 10 percent of whites backed Obama, a drop from nearly 20 percent of whites for Kerry.

“It wasn’t race. It was a national cycle and the fact that Democrats do poorly in national cycles here,” he said.

Davis argued that if Obama had campaigned in Alabama he would have fared better. He noted that Obama won 45 percent in South Carolina — including a quarter of the white vote — because he spent a lot of time there campaigning during the Democratic primary.

Besides, Davis said, Obama’s popularity in 2010 will be a lot more important to a gubernatorial race than the results on Tuesday.

“I think if he governs from the center, I will predict two years from now he’ll be a lot more popular among white voters in Alabama,” Davis said.

Gerald Johnson, director of Capital Survey Research Center in Montgomery, the polling arm of the Alabama Education Association, agreed that nothing in Tuesday’s results should rule out a Davis run even though demographic barriers do exist.

“It’s not impossible, it is doable,” Johnson said. “The positive that can be drawn out of it is the fact that in the United States in 2008 by a sizable margin this country elected an African-American to the office of the presidency. That in and of itself is an enormous statement.”