Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Obama the untouchable

John Savage recently complained that his online reading list has been dominated by the Presidential campaign, something he understandably finds tiresome. It is mostly a pony show, with a numbening repetition of empty words like "change", "bringing people together", "new direction", "vision", "experience", and so on muttered endlessly by hopefuls and their surrogates. The media focus on the minutae of what one candidate charges another with quickly becomes nauseating. (Personally, I'd love the next President to be devoid of a vision for new and greater things.)

But the demographics of the primaries and caucuses are of interest. More than the candidates' perpetual repositioning and recasting, this is the real story. In my blathering, I've tried to stay focused on it.

The phenomenon that is Barack Obama is also remarkable. While he's worked diligently to present himself as the raceless candidate (in spite of--or perhaps in learning from--his racially-obsessive past), that he is black has effected the campaig and the subsequent coverage of it enormously.

On account of it, Obama's the least scrutinized candidate on either side. Romney's Mormonism has been thoroughly batted around, and the candid content in some of Ron Paul's newsletters written decades ago (by staffers) has been given lots of attention, especially for someone who is such a longshot in the campaign. Yet there is barely a mention of of Obama's racial soul-searching or his association with the black nationalist who is his self-described spiritual advisor.

In contrast, Bill Clinton--no enemy of most of the major media--came under fire for a pretty innocuous criticism of Obama's war record. Writes a disapproving Vaugn Ververs' of CBS:
When Bill Clinton referred to Obama's claims of consistent opposition to the war in Iraq as "the biggest fairy tale that I have ever seen," many blacks heard more than policy criticism. They heard a dismissive attack on the first black with a real chance of winning the White House. They heard echoes of racial battles of the past. And they heard it from someone who was supposed to be on their side.
The message: If you criticize Obama, you're probably a racist. How many members of the major media want to run that risk?

That lack of scrutiny extends beyond the personal. Obama's voting record is to the left of Hillary's. The National Journal's comprehensive roll call evaluation of all members of Congress during 2006 gave Obama a liberal score of 86 on a 100-point scale, compared to Hillary's score of 70. Yet he's portrayed as the one who is drawing the less partisan independent vote (therefore insinuating that he has broader national appeal).

That's not untrue, but it is misleading. Hillary is performing better among registered Democrats and Obama better among unregistered independents. But Obama's supporters describe themselves as more liberal than Hillary's do (and Edwards' supporters are more moderate still).

The most noteworthy thing from the Democratic South Carolina primary is the prominence of identity politics in a winnowed-down race between three demographically distinct players. Obama did more than three times as well among blacks as he did among non-blacks. Hillary did twice as well among white women as she did among white men and non-whites. Edwards did almost 3.5 times as well among white men as he did among white women and non-whites.

Rather than meaningfully examine this interesting (if predictable) trend, major media sources minimized its importance. Following the Obama win, the WSJ reported:
Mr. Obama's 55% to 26% victory Saturday over Mrs. Clinton was far wider than predicted, and showed off the best assets of his campaign: a powerful ground organization, the perception that he is an agent of change in a party longing for it, and an ability to attract both white and black voters in a state where the electorate remains racially polarized.
But he did almost as poorly among whites as did he dominate among blacks. Obama beat Edwards three times over in total but still lost to him among whites, 40%-24%. Yes, he attracted some white voters. And Hillary attracted some black voters. But racial alignment was the deciding factor.

On his radio show yesterday, Sean Hannity opened on South Carolina, piquing my curiosity in preparing to give an answer as to why Obama won in South Carolina.

But his explanation was bemusing, not insightful. He opined that it was because the primary voters didn't fall for Bill Clinton's racially divisive tactics! Huh? The black candidate received 78% of the black vote and the white candidates took 76% of the white vote. Clearly race was a divisive factor.

But even to attribute the demographic breakdown to Clinton's remarks on Jesse Jackson's victories in 1984 and '88--as if remaining completely silent on the issue of race would make the racial division go away--is to evince an incomprehension of the determinant importance of demographics in heterogenuous societies.

When I say Obama became the black candidate in South Carolina, that is not to imply it was evitable that he would become so--only that we saw in the South Carolina vote what had already been there before it. Mere political chatter didn't decide the outcome. Something more fundamentally important (in the sense of being much less malleable) did.

This trend will become increasingly pronounced in the US. Despite all the babble over which candidate believes what at the moment, what they say will continue to diminsh in importance relative to who they are in determining their support. Expect an ever-heavier dose of the content-free type of speech delivered by Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius in the State of the Union rebuttal.


Anonymous said...

The one-sided proscription against racialization is unprincipled to the point of depravity, when it means that the minority can racialize in unlimited degree, but everyone else has to avoid even a hint of possibly 'coded' language. Not that it won't do damage to the moderate left this year, as the democrats are for this reason, in danger of nominating their weakest, most puff-jobbed candidate. JSBolton

Audacious Epigone said...


I never thought there was a realistic chance of such a "danger" materializing. Now I'm virtually certain, due to Edwards' early withdrawal. If he'd stayed in for 'Super Tuesday', he could've had some opportunity at quid pro quo with his delegates, which traditionally (although they are not mandated to) vote for the candidate that their withdrawn candidate endorses.

But Clinton is more popular among Edwards' voters than Obama is, by a margin of more than 3-to-2. Even if he endorses Obama, Hillary will benefit from his premature dropping out more than Obama will, since so few of the total delegates have yet to be apportioned.

Fat Knowledge said...

Sticking with the demographics theme, I don't understand one thing about Obama and maybe you can help me out. How is he winning rural areas? He won in rural parts of Nevada and I believe in NH and Iowa as well. I wouldn't think rural areas in those states would have many blacks, or high income individuals, or highly educated individuals or young people. Do you understand this?

Audacious Epigone said...


There is a mild trend in that direction in NH and just barely barely in Nevada. The trend is more pronounced in the opposite direction in Florida and SC, though.

My guess on the first: It's pretty much all white city, suburb, or rural area in NH and Iowa. There are fewer 'seriously' undereducated folks in rural areas (not many PhDs, but generally higher HS grad rates and incomes than the urban poor). That's just a guess. Again, we're just looking at a couple of points by geography.

The second is probably a no-brainer, in the two southern states with large black populations: They're concentrated in the cities.