Time to dare to transcend

2008-02-08 00:00

"I’ve got a little piece of California in me," averred Barack Obama, staking a modest claim to what was rapidly emerging as the most precious piece of real estate in Super Tuesday’s primaries. The state’s First Lady was far more effusive in her assessment. "If Barack Obama was a state, he’d be California," declared Maria Shriver in a fit of Kennedyesque munificence. "I mean, think about it: diverse, open, smart, independent, bucks tradition, innovative, inspiring, dreamer, leader."

At the time, Shriver’s endorsement seemed prophetic, offered as it was at the ultimate "girl power" rally, headlined by Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama, aimed at Hillary Clinton’s most treasured constituency in the heart of what has long been considered — next to New York and Arkansas — her political backyard. With Ted Kennedy barnstorming across the state, wooing Latino voters in execrable Spanish, and a flurry of polls repeating the now-familiar election-eve pattern of surging Obama momentum, the Clinton "firewall" was beginning to look precarious. In the end, however, conventional wisdom and established strength triumphed at the ballot box. It was about women and Latino voters, after all, and they came out in large numbers on election day to award Hillary Clinton the state by a 10-point margin.

In many ways, the California results marked the triumph of tribalism, with each constituency — blacks, Latinos, women, blue-collar workers, Asian-Americans, the young and the old — picking its side. But lost in the horse-race punditry, which thrives on slice-and-dice demographic calculations, are darker implications of such herdlike behaviour for both candidates.

According to the exit polls, women — 55% of the primary voters — favoured Clinton by a staggering 59 to 34% over Obama. Hillary’s oestrogen base is undoubtedly an unqualified asset for her campaign.

On the face of it, men seemed to split almost evenly between the two candidates, but the numbers (skewed by her across-the-board Latino support) disguise a disconnect with white men, who chose Obama by an astounding 20-point margin. And California’s male pro-Obama tilt reflects a national 50-to-44% split in his favour.

This male gender gap isn’t new. "In particular, Hillary Clinton seems to turn off younger and moderate to conservative male Democrats. As many as one in five of them say there is no way they will support the former First Lady for the nomination," wrote the Pew Research Centre’s Andrew Kohut in his explanation for the strong pluralities of men who voted for Obama in Iowa and New Hampshire. This resistance, however, if it persists, bodes ill for Clinton’s future, especially in a general election, where women traditionally play a less decisive role. As Linda Hirshman recently pointed out in the New York Times, "With the possible exception of 1996, women have never voted a candidate into the White House when men thought the other guy should win. In the 2004 election, there was a gender gap in virtually every demographic — among old folks, married people, single people, squirrel hunters — but the gender gap still did not offset the robust men’s vote."

Part of the reason is that men tend to lean Republican, unlike women, who make up an increasing share of the Democratic electorate. As Hirshman reveals, women also constitute a significant chunk of swing voters, with 62% of them identifying themselves as "purple or moderate". But, given Obama’s predominance among independents, there is as yet no evidence that Clinton will be able to attract enough female swing voters or Republicans in November to offset a male anti-Hillary bias. Women voters may be able to deliver her the Democratic nomination, but they won’t be able to carry her all the way to the White House.

While California points to a potential testosterone gap for Clinton, it offers a cautionary tale about race for Obama. For all the excitement over his strong performance among white voters — helped immensely by his gains among white men — his strategy of "transcendence," which may serve him well within a traditional black-white racial divide, may work to his detriment among other communities.

Obama had no such luck in California, where Latinos constituted an impressive 30% of the electorate and chose Clinton over Obama by an overwhelming margin of 67 to 32%, echoing the split in the Latino vote across all primaries on February 5. Obama’s performance was remarkably poor for a candidate who ran to the left of his opponent on immigration, supporting driver’s licences for undocumented immigrants, even at the risk of alienating independents and moderates. For all the talk about his youth appeal and a supposed generational divide among Latinos, he earned a mere 32% in the 18-to-29 age group. And no one seems to have paid attention to his equally weak showing among California’s Asian-Americans (25% to Clinton’s 71%).

The message from the Golden State is the same for Clinton and Obama: they need, in different ways, to craft a more daring politics of transcendence if they want to bridge the divisions that are holding their candidacies back. It’s time to rediscover their inner California.

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