WASHINGTON—A truce has been called in the racial feud between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but not before it stained both with the residue of their own follies. The peril for the Democratic Party is not as obvious as media simpletons say.
It is not only true that Clinton, if she is the eventual nominee, could suffer from lingering bitterness among African-American voters, who must turn out strongly if any Democrat is to be elected president. And it’s not that Obama will lose white women and men who have supported him in Iowa and New Hampshire, and who already support him in significant numbers in polls conducted throughout the country. These voters probably made up their minds about the two candidates some time ago.
The greater danger is that white, working and middle-class voters may turn away because the racial shouting match did not—and will not, if it resumes—speak to them at all.
The deepest division in the Democratic primary campaign until now has not been between blacks and whites, though we are likely to see stark evidence of that in the upcoming South Carolina primary. A fault line already is visible between upper-income, educated whites and those with lower incomes and less education. The upscale voters have gone with Obama, the downscale with Clinton.
The divide was hinted at as early as Iowa but went mostly unremarked in the euphoria over Obama’s win. Nonetheless, Iowa caucusgoers began to shape a profile in which Obama fares worse among those with lower incomes and among union members, for example, than he does with more affluent voters. These contours took clear form in New Hampshire.
There, Clinton beat Obama by a full 15 percentage points among those with family incomes of $50,000 or less, according to exit polls. Obama beat Clinton among those who make $50,000 or more. Clinton won easily among less-educated voters, and among union members. In short, she ran strongly among traditional Democratic groups that have been a bulwark of the party since the New Deal. Obama’s New Hampshire vote tracked closely with the slice of votes won by other Democratic candidates who ran insurgencies against the establishment—Howard Dean, Bill Bradley and Gary Hart are the most obvious examples.
Is this working-class resistance to Obama because of racism? Some of it may well be. But it certainly cannot be argued that racism caused these voters to reject white candidates such as Dean, Bradley and Hart.
Obama’s soaring rhetoric and appeal for “hope” mean a lot less to them than solid campaign proposals that address their day-to-day concerns. Bill Clinton faced media ridicule for his numbingly detailed plans. But voters didn’t get the joke. They saw practical solutions they liked. This is a big reason Hillary Clinton now mimics the approach.
Another risk for Obama is his campaign’s preoccupation with college students. In truth, less than a third of those 18 to 25 are currently enrolled in college, according to the University of Maryland’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which studies the youth vote. That includes part-time students and those attending community colleges. Clinton, sensing an opening after Iowa, targeted young people in New Hampshire who hadn’t gone to college.
There is nothing wrong, and a lot that’s right, about engaging college students in politics. But here’s the trouble: Working-class voters don’t get excited about the size of rallies the campaigns can mount by filling them up with college kids. They agonize over not being able to afford college at all.
Here lies part of a painful Democratic Party legacy that has recently been buried, but could easily be unearthed.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, many working- and middle-class white Democrats voted for Republicans, in part because of racial politics but also because they resented their own party’s drift toward what they perceived as domination by a white elite. To put it crudely, the beer drinkers distrusted the wine drinkers as people who, at best, didn’t understand their everyday concerns or, at worst, looked down on them as racist. Clinton’s presidency for a time seemed to heal the rift. Yet even after President Bush had lost favor among many middle- and working-class voters, Republicans were able to tap this vein with attacks on 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry as a windsurfer who “looks French.”
If the fissure opens wide now, Democrats seriously diminish their chances for winning in the fall. And the roots of defeat will lie partly in the rancor that Clinton and Obama stirred up themselves.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group