By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- Hillary Clinton is overwhelmingly popular with black voters, drawing higher approval ratings than the only major African-American candidate running for president, according to a study released today by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
Clinton's own record as First Lady and New York senator -- along with her marriage to former President Bill Clinton, who is very popular among black voters -- earned her an 83 percent approval rating among likely black voters, compared to 75 percent who ranked Illinois Senator Barack Obama positively, the study said.
It's not that black voters don't like Obama as much, said David Bositis, senior research director for the Washington-based group. But African-Americans -- especially those in the South -- haven't seen black candidates do well statewide, and are concerned Obama can't win, Bositis said.
By a two-to-one margin, black voters said they valued ``commitment to change'' over experience in public office, a trend that would seem to favor Obama, who has cast himself as the agent of change in the race for the Democratic nomination. But Clinton, seen by voters as the stronger candidate to win the general election, still scored higher, according to the poll of 750 African-Americans who said they were likely to participate in primaries and caucuses.
Clinton is ``probably in New England Patriots territory, in terms of being the favorite'' to win the nomination, Bositis said. ``But Philadelphia almost beat the New England Patriots,'' he added, referring to the Eagles' close game against the undefeated Patriots.
If Obama wins the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3, however, he will have a more ``level playing field'' that will lead all Democratic voters -- not just blacks -- to take another look at the Illinois senator, Bositis said. ``It would become a real race,'' he said.
Republicans fared poorly in the study; former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was best-known among African-American voters, but was viewed unfavorably by 43 percent of those polled. Just 27 percent viewed Giuliani favorably. Bositis said the major issues cited by the respondents -- the Iraq war, health care and jobs -- tended to favor Democratic candidates, while issues touted by GOP candidates were barely having an impact among black voters.
None of those poled mentioned taxes as an issue, and fewer than two percent mentioned either terrorism or immigration as being important to them, the study said.