Race, reason, and the Democrats in the 2008 primary season

Salon convened a podcast round table discussion to ask “one uncomfortable, unavoidable, and inexhaustible” question: What role did race play in the voting behavior of white Democrats in 2008? It’s a terrific read.

The panel — Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian; Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution; and Tom Schaller of the University of Maryland — does an excellent job of putting this contest into a historical perspective. They note, for example, that Democrats have always had a split between a “new politics” wing of the party and the “traditional working class” base of the party. There has often been a “new left darling” candidate who enters the race early and makes a splash in the press, then gets noisy push-back from the working-class base.

With that historical perspective in mind, let’s begin by remembering 2004:

Wilentz: If the Democratic candidate doesn’t do better than John Kerry did with white voters in 2004, then forget it. Kerry was clobbered among white voters by George W. Bush.

Teixeira: 17 points. Among whites.

Wilentz: I thought it was 23.

Teixeira: Among white working class it was 23 points.

Wilentz: You can’t do much worse than that. The question is how much better are you going to do?

What of polls showing that supporters of one candidate will not support the other?

Salon: One of the concerns that our readers have, as it looks like we’re nearing the end of [the nominating] process, though we’ve often thought that before, is the poll numbers that show the supporters of one candidate who will not support the other. I wondered if those statistics seemed at all unusual to any of you in relation to any other election cycle.

Teixeira: The answer to that is no! We’ve got that one, we’ve got that one nailed, thanks to Gary Langer of ABC News who compiled these data. Check out these data: In February 1992, only 63 percent of Democrats who didn’t support Bill Clinton said they’d vote for him; in 1996, 66 percent of the Republicans who didn’t support Bob Dole said they’d vote for him in the general election; in 2000, 64 percent of the people who supported Bill Bradley said they’d vote for Al Gore. And what is it today? It’s 64 percent of the people who support Clinton say they’ll support Obama. Exactly the same. Historical norms.

Salon: This time it’s not one white male versus another.

Teixeira: All I’m saying is that they’re not expressing any higher interest in defection than they have in previous cycles. It’s easily explained by being the middle of a contested primary process and you’re asking people if they’re going to vote for the other guy or gal if their guy or gal doesn’t get in, so of course a lot of people are saying they’re going to defect. But they’re probably pretty poor predictors of their own behavior.

We all know the old adage about “lies, damned lies, and statistics” — and heaven knows I love me some good statistics! — well, Tom Schaller, author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South, has gathered plenty that prove the South is not in play this election season:

Schaller: I’m looking at the numbers from Mississippi [in 2004, and the black vote] was 34 percent [of the total], at least according to the exit polls, I think according to the census bureau data it was closer to 36, and Kerry got 90 percent [of the black vote]. So if you assume that [this fall the black vote is] 37 percent with Obama getting 95 percent — Kerry got 20 percent of the white vote, [and Obama] would have to get, like, 35 percent of the white vote in Mississippi to win. In other words, he would have to not quite double but do a 75 percent improvement among white voters in Mississippi… I don’t want to get too far afield on my own stuff, everyone keeps saying to me, Barack Obama is going to win these Southern states because of black turnout, and I think Obama can win, but he’s not going to win because of the South, because African-Americans [already] turn out at proportional rates to their age-eligible population. They were 17.9 percent of the age-eligible voters in 2004 and they were exactly that.

Me, I’ve said here and here that I think Georgia could go for Obama. I lay no real claim to political prognostication, I’m just a transplanted Yankee now living in the state, so we’ll just call it hopes and dreams. But some wiser minds than mine have started singing my song — the AJC’s Cynthia Tucker Sunday,”Georgia…is in play for Barack Obama.”

I’ve always been uncomfortable with Tom Schaller advocating (on page 18 of the aforementioned book) that Southern social conservatism should be turned into a “burdensome stone to hang around the Republicans’ neck” and used strategically by Democrats to win elections.

I saw the very argument the book brought on as racially inflammatory and thought exactly the reverse was what was needed: Democrats should work to counter, minimize, and mitigate the vestiges of those old instincts in the South so that they could die away. Tom is clear now, they are not gone. Not solely in the South. And not solely a Republican problem:

The unfortunate, from a small d, democratic standpoint, the unfortunate lesson that we learned from this 2008 primary, is that no matter who wins, no matter what the result is or what the impact is in the general election contest against John McCain, the notion that racism is something that has been relegated to the Republican Party as an identity problem or as an intraparty problem is simply a fiction. And that, whatever the magnitude of it is, there is still a significant racial undercurrent within Democratic Party politics, and I think it is something that Barack Obama, presuming that he is the nominee, is going to have to deal with.

Again, I’m no expert, but my hopeful take is it’s time to call the question. We’re not as racist as we’re afraid we are. The panel says time and again that the numbers don’t tell them the answers, can’t tell them the answers; we just don’t know! I suspect that when it comes to a vote what we’ll find is that the vast majority of the American people are NOT that racist. Let’s give them the chance.

For those that are, for the racists among us, let’s change the paradigm. Let’s give them the chance, too: The chance to change. If they won’t change, we can deal. We can address that, expose that, marginalize that. And move on.

  • superdestroyer

    The indication that the republicans will have to spend some of their limited funds in Georgia is a good indication that Senator McCain is going to lose in a rout. McCain has just alenated too many Republicans to be a viable candidate. If Senator Obama had run a campaign based upon moderate issues instead of sucking up to the Democratic establishment he would be 20 points ahead today.