Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Vote Demographics Spells Much Bigger Trouble for Obama than Pennsylvania Loss
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Barack Obama’s decisive Pennsylvania loss to Hillary Clinton was predictable and inevitable. Obama pretty much confirmed that when he tossed in the towel and spent the crucial countdown hours to the primary vote at a fundraiser in Indiana. But the loss in that state is the least of Obama’s troubles.
But let’s start with Pennsylvania. More than eighty percent of the voters there are white, a significant percent are blue collar, rural, less educated, and less financially well-endowed. Many are gun owners and devoutly religious. The Democrats among them are solid Clinton backers. Pennsylvania voters mirror the voter profile in a majority of states.
One in five Pennsylvania voters made it clear that race was a factor in their vote. Translated; they would not vote for an African-American for president, no matter how fresh, articulate and race neutral his pitch. If Obama hadn’t gotten ninety percent of the black vote mostly in Philadelphia and other urban spots in the state, Clinton would have demolished him.
Obama’s one big and consistent trump card has been the youth vote, those aged 18-29. They are voting. And the overwhelming majority of them are voting for Obama. But Pennsylvania showed the problem in banking on them to propel a candidate to victory. There simply aren’t enough of them. They make up slightly more than 10 percent of the vote in the state. Their number is dwarfed by older voters over age 45 that make up nearly seventy percent of the vote there. Older, white male, rural voters have been the pathway to the White House for GOP presidents since Nixon. In a head to head contest with McCain, Clinton almost certainly wouldn’t beat him out for their vote, but she’d be competitive. Obama wouldn’t be. The highest percentage of young voters is in solid Democrat or Democratic leaning states. In 2004 the youth voter turnout was highest in Minnesota (69%), Wisconsin (63%), Iowa (62%), Maine (59%), and New Hampshire (58%). In Pennsylvania, there was even an ominous note with the youth vote; race sneaked in. Clinton did surprisingly well with white voters under age 30.
The hard numbers and demographics may be less troubling than voter attitudes and that’s Democratic voter attitudes towards Clinton, and especially Obama. They can be summed up in one word: polarization. That polarization has gotten wider and deeper with every swap of a name call, finger point, and character attack by Clinton and Obama on each other. One quarter of Democrats say they will either cross over and vote for McCain or stay home if Obama is the nominee. Fewer Democrats say they will defect if Clinton’s the nominee. Put bluntly, a general would be hard pressed to win a major battle if one quarter of his troop’s desert before the first shot is fired.
The dominant issue for voters is no longer the Iraq war but the economy. Those that are most likely to stampede the polls in anger over a turned South economy are the voters that Clinton best appeals to. In exit polls, voters said that they thought Obama and Clinton would do better than McCain in handling the economy, but more favored Clinton in handling the economic meltdown.
Pennsylvania was a crowning vindication of Clinton’s win the big state strategy. These are the states that are in play for the Democrats and these are the states that will decide ultimately who will sit in the White House. Obama’s wins in the South and West are side show, feel good wins. These are locked down red states. With the exception of Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, a Democratic presidential candidate has won only one Western state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Four of the states with remaining primaries are textbook examples of the meaningless of a Democratic primary win in these states. The last Democrat to win Indiana was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. The last Democrat to win North Carolina was Jimmy Carter in 1976. Clinton was the last Democrat to win West Virginia. He also broke the Democratic presidential drought in Kentucky with his wins in 1992 and 1996. While it’s true that some of these states have Democratic governors and senators, this means little in a national election. The Democrats that win in these states are independent, self-reliant and conservative. They are the exact opposite of the Obama and even Clinton profile.
There’s one more troubling note for Obama. The majority of voters overall and that includes a significant percentage of Clinton’s backers think that Obama will eventually get the Democratic nomination they aren’t exactly doing handstands at that prospect. More Obama backers say that they will be just as content if Clinton gets the nomination. Fewer Clinton backers say they’ll be content if Obama gets the nomination.
Obama’s Pennsylvania loss does not dampen his chance of eventually getting the Democratic nomination. But the voter demographics that stack up high against him dampen his chance of getting the White House.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).