Democrats' Demographics: A Convention Preview

Super Tuesday Part V takes place on May 20, when Kentucky and Oregon have their say at the polls. These two states are similar to North Carolina and Indiana in that Oregon is considered Obama territory while Kentucky is considered Clinton's turf. The most likely result will be a split decision in which Obama beats Clinton in Oregon by a fairly comfortable margin while Clinton beats Obama in Kentucky by a landslide.

Given that the results of these primaries are essentially foregone conclusions, what's the news value of these contests? There are two major questions that political observers are waiting to be answered: 1) What is the impact of John Edwards' endorsement, and 2) Will Obama's support among Whites continue to send warning signs to superdelegates?

John Edwards placed his credibility on the line by endorsing Barack Obama last week. As one of the remaining heavyweights who had yet to endorse, Edwards' endorsement was big political news. And this endorsement essentially stepped all over the news about Clinton's landslide victory in West Virginia. When considering Obama's veepstakes earlier, I noted that the delay in Edwards' endorsing Obama probably removed him from veep consideration. As it turned out, Obama didn't need Edwards' help in winning North Carolina. But it is quite possible that he could have helped in Indiana. Then again, endorsing Obama last week was probably more effective tactically because it got West Virginia out of the headlines. So perhaps Obama and Edwards timed this perfectly.

But how much does this matter? Given how ineffective Edwards was in 2004 for John Kerry, it is difficult to see how 2008 would be any different--at least regarding North Carolina. However, Edwards might be able to help Obama make inroads among rural Whites in Midwestern states. After all, Edwards was able to win a surprisingly large percentage of the vote in the West Virginia primary despite having dropped out of the contest more than three months ago.

Hillary Clinton will win Kentucky easily. However, if Edwards is able to help Obama keep Clinton's margin of victory down, he could make an argument that he is still relevant. But should Clinton rack up another 30-40 point victory, it would be obvious that Edwards has very little political clout left and he could no longer seriously be considered as a party heavyweight despite his geography, his drawl, and his good looks.

As it stands right now, the nomination remains Obama's to lose. All of the metrics are working against Hillary Clinton. Obama has won more states, more pledged delegates, and more popular votes. He has also recently pulled ahead of Clinton in terms of superdelegates. It is possible that Clinton can seize the popular vote by running up the score in Kentucky and Puerto Rico while keeping things close in Oregon, but having to rely on a US territory in addition to the controversial results from Michigan and Florida to win the popular vote probably won't sit well with party officials.

The only card Clinton has left to play is the demographic card. West Virginia did not net her enough delegates to make much of a dent in Obama's lead, but exit polls there confirmed what Ohio and Pennsylvania suggested: Barack Obama simply isn't doing well enough with downscale, culturally moderate to conservative, rural White voters. It could be because of racial discomfort. It could be because of a lack of cultural affinity. It could be because of political disconnect. Whatever it is, this is very important and Obama needs to find a way to remedy this problem.

Obama's coalition consists of Blacks, liberals, independents, and highly educated voters. Clinton's coalition consists of Latinos, women, social moderates, rural voters, and Whites. The argument Clinton needs to make to superdelegates is that her coalition is larger than his coalition. Blacks, liberals, and people with doctorates are going to vote for a Democrat in November regardless of who it is. The same could not be said, however, for rural Whites, blue collar voters, and moderates. And independents could go either way. So could Clinton do a better job of keeping more raw votes in the Democratic column even though Obama appeals to a more diverse electorate? Despite all the talk of multiculturalism and breaking racial barriers, the United States remains about 70% White. And while many of these White voters are genuinely concerned only with the issues, many others would like to have a presidential candidate they can relate to as well, as argued by conservative columnist Kathleen Parker.

A few months ago, the conundrum Democrats had was that they were torn between their head (Clinton) and their heart (Obama). Clinton was the safe choice while Obama was the inspirational one. Ironically, given the way they've presented themselves on the campaign trail over the past few weeks, Obama has turned out to be the more cerebral candidate while Clinton has become the candidate who connects with voters on a gut level. She might pander and she might be divisive, but she is definitely scrappy and has earned a lot of respect for fighting in the trenches and maintaining her never-say-die campaign. John Kerry, Al Gore, and Michael Dukakis were all cerebral candidates. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush connected at a gut level. The cerebral candidates all lost. Clinton's surrogates need to reinforce this distinction.

John McCain and Barack Obama are trading salvos on an almost daily basis. Even President Bush joined the fray by implicitly attacking Obama before the Knesset in Israel last week. In the event that Bush or McCain finds a major Obama weakness or forces him into a political briar patch, Clinton could position herself as the vetted alternative, thus reminding voters that her well spoken rival from Chicago is still too risky.

In short, Clinton can still win, but she no longer controls her own destiny. In order to win, she needs help. And she has about three months for this help to come. Giving new life to stories about Obama's struggles with White voters by running up the score in Kentucky would be a good way to start.

2 comment(s):

Brett said...

Perhaps we should ask, rather, why Americans don't seem to vote for cerebral Americans. It's not as if we haven't done it in the past; Woodrow Wilson was an intellectual and the President of Princeton University, Jefferson was the intellectual politician's intellectual, and most of the Founding Fathers who came after Washington were quite cerebral. What happened?

That Parker piece on RealClearPolitics showed part of the problem. She claimed that these "full-blooded Americans" can smell a poser from a mile away. No, they can't - their "instinct" didn't save them from Bush and his penchant for abuse of executive privilege (not to mention the fact that he was originally an Andover man from Connecticut). For that matter, why this emphasis on "instinct"? It should be a bad thing that we rely so much on "instinct" when casting judgement on voting. Bush's record as governor (including Rove's notorious campaigning practices) were all there for all to see, but nothing came up of it.

There, I'm finished. I do agree with the main point of your post, Anthony - this is Clinton's chance if she can pull together a coalition. I can't shake the sense, though, that it would have a shaky foundation, considering that it would have been dependent on super-delegate support for its existence in a General Election. Certainly the above type of victory did no good for Walter Mondale, although, of course, he had a multitude of other problems.

Anthony Palmer said...


The cerebral/instinctive divide is one that I don't think anybody can truly understand. The "brain" voters look at the "gut" voters and wonder why they don't take their civic responsibilities so seriously. ("We're not electing someone we can have a beer with!") The "gut" voters look at the "brain" voters and wonder why the "brain" voters think they are so much better than them. ("You might have your master's degree, but my vote counts just as much as yours!") So there's a lot of mistrust, which naturally leads to the cultural divide between "elite" liberals and "primitive" conservatives.

Both sides are right. I think voters should take the time to do a bit of research and vote for the candidate who has the most sound political platform and the platform that best matches the times in which we live. But we should also remember that we are electing not just a politician, but a national leader who we will invite into our homes via the television on a daily basis. This is someone we should feel comfortable with and someone who at least seems to connect with regular people like us.

So both sides are correct and condescending at the same time. Regular voters really don't take their civic responsibilities so seriously (think of how few people actually vote or research their candidates), and partisanship has essentially blinded us from saying anything positive about people from "the other" political party and/or criticizing their own.

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