By Marie Cocco
WASHINGTON—Kitchen-table worries trumped even the charisma of Camelot. This theme has sounded again and again since the Democratic primary contests began, yet neither the national media nor, apparently, the Obama campaign can hear it.
The deafening buzz that heralded Barack Obama’s supposed surge of support heading into Super Tuesday was drowned out by the quiet casting of ballots. Traditional Democrats gave Hillary Clinton convincing victories in most of the largest states, where votes had to be won among economically and racially diverse groups and where the most delegates were at stake. Obama racked up huge margins in smaller, caucus states, the sort of contests where liberal activists dominate.
In California, the biggest prize and the most significant national political bellwether, neither Kennedy magic nor Oprah enthusiasm could carry the day for Obama. The media are blinded in these lights, utterly unable to see the appeal of Clinton’s prosaic promises to improve voters’ personal bottom lines. This is what propelled her to earlier victories in New Hampshire and Nevada, and remains at least as powerful—maybe more so, as the economy slides further downward—as Obama’s pledge to bring about change.
Exit polls showed that 90 percent of those who voted in the California Democratic primary, which was open to independents, said the economy was “not so good” or poor. Among these voters, Clinton bested Obama by 10 points. Obama won just 39 percent of those who described their family’s financial situation as “falling behind.”
If the Democratic nominee does not represent these people, then who, exactly, does? We already have a party that fails to speak to them, address their problems or lift their aspirations. It’s the Republican Party.
Super Tuesday, muddled as the results seem to be, tells us one thing very clearly. Obama has not expanded his support much beyond African-Americans and upscale, educated whites. In the middle is a hole at least as large as the much-discussed chasm between Republican front-runner John McCain and conservatives who rebel against his candidacy.
The great divide in the Democratic contest continues to be between those who earn more than $50,000 annually—mostly Obama supporters—and those who make less and who consistently support Clinton. Exit poll results from across the country confirmed that Clinton continues to attract support from ethnic minorities other than African-Americans. In California, Latinos voted for Clinton 2 to1. Among Asians, her margin over Obama was 3 to 1. This is in a state where Obama’s multicultural appeal was supposed to lift him to victory. It fell flat.
Still, the Obama campaign vows a war of attrition against Clinton, and the Byzantine delegate-selection rules of the Democratic Party allow him to wage it.
But what is Obama’s message to those Democrats—women, working-class voters, Hispanics, the elderly—who find little inspiration in his oratory of hope?
Maxine Waters, an African-American congresswoman who represents South-Central Los Angeles and who endorsed Clinton, put it aptly: People in her district “don’t need more hope. They need help.”
Obama and his adoring acolytes remain deaf to this message.
“I want to speak directly to all those Americans who have yet to join this movement, but still long for change,” Obama told cheering supporters during his election night celebration. “They’re afraid. They’ve been taught to be cynical. They’re doubtful that it can be done.”
Really, now. Most elderly Americans don’t want to join a movement, they just want someone to protect Medicare. Most working-class people aren’t afraid of some vague conspiracy among Washington lobbyists, they fear losing their jobs and their homes. Women weren’t “taught to be cynical.” They’ve earned their cynicism through years of being underpaid at work and undervalued in society.
Do not wonder why Obama, despite his own best efforts and that of the media, can’t knock Clinton to her knees. She is not propped up by some menacing “Clinton machine.” She has no overwhelming campaign war chest—Obama’s team now brags openly that he can raise more and outspend her all the way to the Democratic convention. She does benefit from Bill Clinton’s aura, but even he was kept under wraps, or at least forced to stay on message, in the days leading up to Tuesday’s vote.
Hillary Clinton is still standing for the simple reason that she has convinced millions of core Democratic voters that she will stand up for them.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group