Race Matters

by John B. Judis | 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 questionable. Nevada's 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 the state.

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 northern Virginia 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, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. 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.

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