POLITICS JANUARY 31, 2008
It would have been fine, of
course, for a political scientist or a journalist to make the observation that
Hillary Clinton stood little chance in the South Carolina Democratic primary running
against a black candidate. And it would have raised no eyebrows if he or she
drew comparisons between Barack Obama's win and Jesse Jackson's 1988 victory. But
Bill Clinton is a master politician who calibrates the exact effect of his
words upon an audience. And as Clinton well knew,
linking an opponent to Jackson,
as former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms used to do regularly in his
campaigns, is a surefire way to stir some white voters up against him.
The ostensible purpose of Clinton's doing so was not to win South
Carolina, although the Clinton
campaign expected to do much better with the state's African Americans than
they did. It would have been to send a signal to white and Latino voters in
future primaries that Obama, like Jackson,
was a "black candidate." After the election, the campaign circulated
a blog post
on The Left Coaster noting that Obama
had "actually underperformed on the white vote (significantly) ... in South Carolina compared to Nevada." The message of this post
seemed to be that as a result of his reliance on black voters in South Carolina, Obama
would continue to underperform among whites.
This analysis is
whites voted in a caucus, not a primary. They were likely to be more liberal
than their South Carolina
counterparts and to belong to unions. But the general point could be correct.
By painting Obama as the black candidate, Hillary Clinton might have lost the African-American
vote but won the nomination. On February 5, it will be important to look at the
Latino vote in California, New
Mexico, Arizona, New York, and New Jersey,
and the white vote in states like Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri,
where Obama's overwhelming support among blacks may not be sufficient to carry
There are, of course, moral
drawbacks to this strategy, but there are also political drawbacks that could
appear not just in the primaries, but also in the general election. In the
primaries, the Clinton
campaign's resort to the race card--however fleeting--coupled with Obama's
victory, should lead to increased black turnout and support for Obama in the coming primaries. Many of these
primaries take place in states with significant African American populations. In
the 2004 Democratic primaries, for instance, blacks comprised 47 percent of Georgia voters, 35 percent of voters in Maryland, 23 percent in Tennessee,
21 percent in Texas, 33 percent in Virginia, 20 percent in New York,
15 percent in Missouri, 14 percent in Ohio, and 8 percent in California.
It's fair to assume that
black turnout will increase over 2004, and at a rate higher than white or
Latino turnout. In South Carolina
this year, black turnout went from 47 percent to 55 percent of the electorate--a
17 percent increase. At that rate, black turnout could make up over 50 percent
in Georgia, over 40 percent
in Maryland, and almost 25 percent of the electorate
in New York. If
Obama wins 80 percent of the black vote, as he did in South
Carolina, then Clinton
could have difficulty winning primaries in these states.
That's certainly true in Georgia (a February 5 primary state), and in Virginia (February 12). Using
South Carolina as a guide, blacks in Georgia can be
expected to make up about 55 percent of
the primary electorate. If Obama wins 80 percent of this vote, he'll need to
win less than 15 percent of the white and Hispanic vote to carry the state. That
may be why the Clinton
campaign has been running few ads there.
But let's take what would
seem a more difficult example: Missouri.
If the South Carolina
pattern holds, blacks would comprise about 18 percent of the primary electorate
on February 5. If Obama gets 80 percent of that vote, he'll have to win 43 percent
of the white vote to carry the state. In New
Hampshire, which Obama lost, he still won 36 percent
of the white vote. If he can add to that total a third of the vote that would
have gone to John Edwards, he'll carry Missouri.
Secondly, Obama could be
aided by what I'll call the Wilder effect. There is a growing group of white,
college-educated voters who grew up in the shadow of the civil rights
revolution. They consider themselves free of racial prejudice and will condemn
those whom they believe to be prejudiced. At their state convention in 1985,
Virginia Democrats nominated African American state legislator Doug Wilder as
the candidate for lieutenant governor. Many of the state's politicians thought Wilder
would lose and even doom the fate of the gubernatorial candidate. Wilder, like
Obama, ran a campaign that tried to transcend race, but his Republican
opponents played the race card, attacking him for having introduced a
resolution 15 years before against the state's official song, "Carry me
back to Ole Virginia."
The song celebrates plantation life and even includes a reference to "darkies."
The Republican tactic
backfired. Immediately after the attacks, Wilder picked up support in the
suburbs, which were populated by upscale college-educated whites who had
favored moderate Republicans in the past. The pollster for Wilder's rival later
acknowledged that the ploy cost his candidate four to six percentage points
among suburban voters in Northern Virginia and
the Tidewater. Wilder proceeded to win the election.
Of course, a single incident
doesn't demonstrate a trend, but these same voters--who helped elect Senator Jim
Webb in November 2006 against George "Macaca" Allen--have evolved nationally
into a major source of Democratic support. (Many of them regard themselves as "independents,"
but regularly vote Democratic.) Playing the race card won't sit well with these
voters, who will play an important role in states like California,
And many of them are the college-educated women who were so important to Clinton's majority in New Hampshire.
Finally, suppose that Clinton does win the
nomination after an acrimonious primary battle. Will there be repercussions in
the fall? In recalling that Jackson had won the
1988 South Carolina
caucus, Bill Clinton could have drawn a much different conclusion. In 1988, Jackson surprised many Democrats not only by winning
states in the Deep South, but by winning the Michigan caucus in March by nearly two-to-one
over Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. That set up a showdown in New York the next month pitting Jackson against Dukakis and Senator Al Gore,
who enjoyed the endorsement of New York Mayor Ed Koch. Koch, who campaigned
with Gore, opened up old wounds by suggesting that Jackson was anti-Semitic. "Jews would
have to be crazy to vote for Jackson,"
Koch declared. Koch and the New York
primary put race at the center of the primary campaign.
Jackson lost the state, and failed to win another primary
except for Washington, D.C. But the manner of his defeat in New York created a lasting bitterness that--not without Jackson's contrivance--carried
over to the fall. In the 1988 election, black turnout declined from 55.8
percent in 1984 to 51.5 percent. That didn't cost Dukakis the election; his
singularly inept campaign took care of that. But if Dukakis had run a better
campaign overall, the lagging turnout among blacks could have cost him
electoral votes in states like Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Illinois
that Bill Clinton would win four years hence. In the case of a photo-finish election
like we've had in 2000 and 2004, a drop in black turnout could easily cost
Democrats the win. Even if playing the race card gets Clinton the nomination, it could still cost
her the presidency.
Leaving the moral question
aside, the fact is that Clinton blundered
disastrously in South Carolina.
Once Obama had won Iowa and established
himself as a credible candidate, his standing among black voters shot upwards,
and it became extremely likely that he would win the South Carolina primary. Clinton
could have run a decent, above-the-fray campaign in South Carolina that maintained her
popularity among African American voters. She would have lost the overall vote
by less, and would still have benefited among some whites and Latinos from
Obama's visible reliance on black voters to ensure his victory. Instead, she jeopardized
both her reputation and her chance of becoming president.
John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New
Republic and a Visiting
Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.