The results in Tuesday’s twin primaries—Barack Obama by 14 percent in North Carolina and Hillary Clinton by less than 2 percent in Indiana—confirmed that Clinton is finished as a contender. Barack Obama will be the Democratic candidate for president this fall.
Clinton, the private-schooled, Wellesley and Yale-educated millionaire lawyer from Chicago, first tried to present herself as a White House veteran, and then, in recent weeks, as a NASCAR mom on Food Stamps, and in Pennsylvania resorted to cheap race-baiting and red-baiting in an effort to derail her opponent, has failed. Barack Obama, another private-schooled Harvard and Yale-educated lawyer, but one who actually did have to work his way up the economic ladder, won decisively in North Carolina, even drawing a significant number of working-class white voters in a state where white voters have not traditionally voted for candidates with dark skin.
As a resident of Pennsylvania, I can only express a sense of shame for the large number of white voters here who bought Clinton’s subtle racist message. North Carolina, my mother’s home state, proved to be more resistant to the Clintons’toxic campaign than my adopted state. Exit polls suggest that as more than one in five Pennsylvanians voted in the primary on the basis of race. Now, if half of the 14 percent of the voters who were black voted for Obama for racial reasons, this still means that perhaps 14 percent of the state’s white voters, or about one in seven, voted for Hillary simply because her oppponent was black.
I would argue that for a black person to vote for a black candidate because he is black is qualitatively different from a white person voting for a white candidate because the other candidate is black. First of all, blacks have not had the opportunity, ever, to vote for a candidate of their race who has a real chance at winning the nomination. It is a historic first. They are not saying they would not vote for a white candidate, and indeed, if they voted in the past, they probably did vote for white candidates, since that’s all there were on offer. It’s akin to women (and men) voting for Clinton because she is a woman. Obviously they are not saying they won’t vote for men, just that they want a chance to vote for a woman. A white candidate voting for a white candidate because they won’t vote for a black candidate is simply being racist, just as a person voting for Obama because Clinton is a woman would be a sexist. What we had in Pennsvlvania—indeed, accounting for more than Clinton’s entire 9 percent victory margin—was white racists voting against a black candidate.
Part of the problem for Obama in Pennsylvania, too, was the self-serving decision by Philadelphia’s new African-American mayor, Michael Nutter, to endorse Clinton instead of Obama. Nutter, clearly looking ahead to statewide office, when he will need white votes, opted for a candidate who, with her husband, helped pull the rug out from under many Philadelphians, white and black, with the Clinton administration’s ending of support for welfare programs on which many of the city’s poor and minority families desperately rely.
But at the same time, Obama himself contributed to his 9-point loss to Clinton in Pennsylvania by barely campaigning in Philadelphia, and by an over-reliance on television advertising—a mistake he did not repeat in Indiana and North Carolina.
In the end, the Clinton end-game strategy of using the race card, and of trying to recast herself, absurdly, as a working-class hero, may end up being all to the good for Obama. Clearly it forced him to move away from his empty “change” and “hope” slogans and to address the issues of ordinary working-class Americans—something he had largely avoided doing earlier in the campaign. It also put the issue of race—which the Republicans can be expected to use even more blatantly in the general election—out front and center, where it could be exposed to the light of day.
What seems to be happening is that racist Democrats, those who cannot vote for a black candidate, are rejecting Obama, and will probably either skip voting in November, or swing over to McCain, just as they swung over to Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon before, on different but related issues. The difference is that Obama seems to be able to reach independent white voters and even liberal and libertarian Republican voters who are turned off by the Republicans’ overt racism, as well as by many of the Republicans’ so-called “social policy” positions, such as abortion bans, opposition to gay rights, denial of global warming, etc.
From here in Pennsylvania, I’d say the outlook for the fall is likely to be a strong win for Obama in a McCain/Obama match-up. In a funny way, he will have Pennsylvania, and Hillary’s sewer campaign, to thank.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback edition). His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening