Sharpton in the Rainbow's Shadow

Reverend Al slips and slides as political landscape shifts

And while Sharpton talked of using the hip-hop generation as a source of untapped votes, it's actually Dean who's gotten the mileage out of the Jay-Z set. That's because the majority of hip-hop's audience is not black. "Anybody that's truly in the business of hip-hop understands that there is a decent percentage of blacks and Latinos who are buying rap albums," says Paul. "But the majority of records are being bought by people who live in suburbs."

Then there are problems that appear specific to Al Sharpton himself. Sharpton and Jackson Sr. can both be sharp-tongued, but Sharpton has a penchant for saying things that haunt him among his base. In a 2000 opinion poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 83 percent of African Americans viewed Jackson favorably, while 9 percent viewed him unfavorably. Sharpton's numbers were considerably worse: Thirty-seven percent viewed him favorably, 29 percent unfavorably.

"When Jackson ran, there were people who accused him of being a polarizer—it's not like everyone was saying he was a uniter," says David Bositis, senior analyst for the center. "Sharpton brought a reputation that many people viewed questionably. By and large, his reputation has, if anything, improved in the primaries. However, it's not improved in such a way that people will vote for him."

Yet even some of his critics maintain there is still a body of unrepresented voters for whom Sharpton's big-tent progressive message could resonate. Frank Watkins was the premier architect of Jackson's campaigns, and has also done stints with Jackson Jr. He was Sharpton's campaign manager until the end of September, when he left for "personal reasons." But though Watkins is mildly critical of Sharpton's organizational setup, and even though he's now back working for Jackson Jr., Watkins believes in the potential of a Sharpton campaign.

"He's still has an excellent opportunity to show well in South Carolina," says Watkins, noting that close to half the state's Democratic primary voters are expected to be black. "He spent a lot of time there, and while I was there, people were responsive. I think there's an opportunity there. Time will tell whether he's able to take advantage of that or not."

"From Sideshow to Big Tent: A Campaign Plan for Making Al Sharpton Matter" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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