After Pennsylvania: demography is destiny

With neither Clinton nor Obama offering a compelling political vision, the primaries are becoming a deeply entrenched war of identities.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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After Hillary Clinton defeated Barack Obama in the Pennsylvania Democratic Party primary on Tuesday, many emphasised how problematic this was for Obama’s campaign. According to Clinton, Pennsylvania showed that Obama, the frontrunner, couldn’t ‘close the deal’. Much of the media commentariat echoed this view.

Pennsylvania certainly didn’t show Obama at his finest. Not only did Clinton beat him by a significant margin (54.7 per cent to 45.3 per cent), but Obama continued to do poorly among particular groups: women, senior citizens and workers, especially white workers (1). Before the vote, everyone knew that Obama was ahead in pledged delegates, and that mathematically it would be very difficult for Clinton to catch him – and yet people still turned out to vote for Hillary. She suffered setbacks in the weeks running up to the vote – getting caught-out telling fibs about sniper-fire in Bosnia, having to sack her campaign strategy manager – and Obama outspent her by at least two to one, and she still prevailed on the day.

But, if you step back from the immediate outcome and reactions, you see that, in electoral terms, things are not that much worse for Obama, nor that much better for Clinton. Before Pennsylvania, the contest for the Democratic presidential nominee was a close and unresolved race; after Pennsylvania, it still is. Obama is still ahead in the delegate count after Pennsylvania, and unless Clinton wins the remaining primaries by landslides, he is likely to remain so. But neither can win enough elected delegates to claim victory outright, and so both will need the support of the so-called ‘superdelegates’, the non-elected party officials who represent about 20 per cent of the total (2).

In fact, a striking aspect of the Pennsylvania result is how it fell into line with expectations, including consensus opinion polls about Clinton’s margin of victory. When the primary campaigning first began in earnest back in January, the pre-election polls were often contradicted by the actual vote (for example, in New Hampshire). Then, once Obama was established as a strong contender, if not the frontrunner, the pundits predicted his campaign would gather momentum and deliver a knockout punch. Thus it came as a surprise to them when Clinton either won or performed strongly (as she did in Super Tuesday in early February).

Since that time, it is remarkable how stable different voting groups’ allegiances to either candidate have remained. As noted, Obama has had difficulty winning particular groups – but Clinton has the mirror-image problem with other groups, such as younger people, blacks and the more affluent. Pennsylvania showed how fixed these loyalties have become recently.

It’s almost as if demography is destiny. Pennsylvania has similar demographics as Ohio, and, sure enough, the Pennsylvania results were similar to Ohio’s back in March (3). In particular, Pennsylvania has a large proportion of senior citizens (the second-highest after Florida in fact – and, unlike Florida, very few are retiring to Pennsylvania), which was to Clinton’s advantage. And so, despite all of the noise about Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Bittergate and Clinton dodging sniper-fire in Bosnia, these events in the end did not upset what’s become the predictable demographic dividing line between the two candidates.

In electoral terms, this divide means that when the race moves on to states that have more favorable demographics for Obama – such as in about two weeks’ time in North Carolina and, to a lesser extent, Indiana – it is possible that he will come out on top, but that would not necessarily signal a swing in momentum towards his campaign. And what’s even more important than these electoral considerations are the political implications of this demographic divide.

Essentially these ongoing allegiances reflect the fact that neither candidate has a compelling vision that is able to win over voters across the spectrum of the party. For all of the excitement around the race, it has noticeably lacked a discussion of big ideas. Having to choose among personalities rather than programmes, many voters have seemingly fallen back on preferences that align with certain demographic profiles. As the race has continued, the candidates have moved even further away from any connection to ideas, turning inwards towards so-called negative ‘gotcha’ attacks. And, at the same time, the voters’ attachments, which began as mostly arbitrary and based on personal experiences, have showed signs of hardening into battles between competing identities (4).

Consequently, thanks to this contest, there is a lot of talk about divisions along lines of gender, race and class. These actually refer to divisions in voting preferences (between two candidates of the same party with very similar, mundane policies), even though they are discussed as if they were the same thing as real social divisions, which they are not. Because it only concerns a nomination process, it is something of a phony war, but it holds out the threat of potentially damaging consequences for social relations.

The lack of clashing big ideas also explains another notable feature of the Obama-Clinton contest, both before and after Pennsylvania: the feeling that it has dragged on too long. In one sense this reaction is odd, especially when you consider other nominating contests in the past have gone on longer than the current one (for instance, Bill Clinton’s nomination in 1992 was not settled until June). However, when the discussion descends into whether candidates should wear American flag pins on their lapels, even one week of it seems unbearable, and you can almost forgive some for saying: enough already.

But calls to end the contest – put forward mainly by Obama’s supporters, effectively demanding that Clinton throw in the towel – mainly reflect an aversion to political engagement. Obama and his campaign managers have stressed that they are not asking Clinton to step down, but they drop awfully big hints for her to do so, like when Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, says: ‘There is a sense of urgency about the time we’re losing and a sense of urgency that we not savage each other to the benefit of Senator McCain.’ Even less subtle were the t-shirts worn, post-Pennsylvania, by Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, Obama’s communications director, which read ‘Stop the drama, vote Obama.’

It would be one thing to say, let’s stop, change the subject and address the serious issues. But more and more the Obama campaign seems to be effectively saying, let’s just stop – period – just give us the damn nomination. Let’s have no more debate, that’s just destructive. This mood was captured in a recent ‘news’ story in the satirical newspaper, The Onion: ‘After months of fevered and contentious political discourse, the US populace unanimously agreed Monday that, before somebody gets upset and things get out of hand, it would be better to just stop talking about politics altogether.’ (5)

The undercurrent of ‘let’s call the whole thing off’ is cynical and anti-political. It’s also worth noting that many voters do not share this view, as witnessed by the large turnout at the Pennsylvania (and prior) polls, sizeable rallies, and the large number of individuals who have donated to the two candidates’ campaigns.

Many pundits, including the New York Times editors, have called for the two candidates to stop making negative attacks, and to turn to issues such as the economy, Iraq and terrorism (6). But moving on to this terrain isn’t enough to raise the level of discussion: just look at how Clinton dealt with the foreign policy issue of Iran – by cartoonishly threatening to ‘obliterate’ the country (imagine the uproar if George W Bush had made such as statement!). No, it’s not the issues per se, it’s whether the candidates have anything insightful, relevant and inspiring to say about them – and that is still not the case. Furthermore, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if candidates are ‘negative’: that would be quite acceptable if the discussion was about issues that matter; unfortunately, today’s negatives are about trivialities.

For now, the candidates will stagger on, neither one being able convincingly to defeat the other. Eventually, the Democrats will select a candidate. Even if it comes as soon as two weeks from now, that selection will not come about as a result of one candidate having compelling ideas that enthuse a substantial majority of the party. Instead, like parents stepping in between two kids fighting, the Democratic party hierarchy will have to intervene and bring it to its end. So much for hope, unity and change.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

(1) Stuck down the Democrats’ rabbit hole, National Journal, 23 April 2008

(2) See Why this year’s Super Tuesday was different, by Sean Collins, 6 February 2008

(3) A review of the Pennsylvania primary, Real Clear Politics, 23 April 2008

(4) Clinton v. Obama: the identity wars, by Sean Collins, 4 March 2008

(5) Nation agrees not to talk about politics, The Onion, 17 April 2008

(6) The low road to victory, the New York Times, 23 April 2008

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