Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Race Trumps Gender; Now Obama Must Mend Broken Hearts

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May 21, 2008
c.2008 Newhouse News Service

WASHINGTON — With just three primaries left in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, an analysis of results in the 33 primary states for which there are exit polls reveals the decisive role identity politics played in cleaving the party and determining the likely outcome:

Barack Obama’s overwhelming margin with black voters trumped Hillary Clinton’s broad backing from white women.

The finding suggests that, despite recent attention to Obama’s perceived weakness with a segment of white voters because of race, his immediate challenge is to assuage the letdown and even bitterness of some white women who, along with African-Americans, have been the bedrock of the modern Democratic coalition.

Especially for women of Clinton’s generation, who fear they may now not live to see a woman president, Obama is less the dashing dreamer and more the arrogant interloper dashing their dream.

“This is the first time I felt it was ‘my’ election,” said Janet White, a 64-year-old retired writer and editor from Tacoma, Wash., who was a Clinton delegate in the early stages of the caucus process in her state. “She is very much our cohort, born within a 20-year time frame; both her life and her troubles and her great achievements pretty much echoed our lives. We even understood that cheating husband we had to forgive because he’s a really good guy and our kids love him.”

White believes it will be up to Obama, between now and the Democratic Convention, to be properly solicitous in his relationship with Sen. Clinton and the millions of women who see themselves in her. “It’s diamonds, candy and flowers time,” she said.

The race for the 2008 Democratic nomination was destined to take a collision course — a tight and bruising battle between candidates seeking to become the first black or first woman president of the United States.

In the 33 primaries in which Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International conducted exit polls for the major news organizations, Clinton won 61 percent of the votes of white women. They made up 37 percent of those voting, and comprised nearly half her total vote. (This does not include results in Wyoming and Washington, D.C., for which there were no exit polls; in Puerto Rico, Montana and South Dakota, which hold their contests in early June; in Michigan and Florida, where the Democratic National Committee voided the results, and in 12 caucus states.)

By contrast, Clinton barely edged Obama among white males — 28 percent of the electorate — tallying 49 percent to his 46 percent.

Blacks, according to the exit polls, constituted 19 percent of the primary electorate. Obama won 84 percent of their votes, against a candidate who was more popular with black voters at the start than he was. Blacks made up a third of his total vote.

Most telling, though, is how Obama’s huge advantage with black voters more than wiped out Clinton’s advantage with white women. Clinton won the votes of nearly 3 million more white women than Obama did, but Obama won the support of 4.4 million more black voters than Clinton did.

Along the way, the Democrats’ early exhilaration with their history-making choice has given way to mutual recriminations.

It has become a commonplace for Obama supporters to view the Clintons as having made racist appeals in attempting to slow Obama’s momentum, and for Clinton partisans to see Obama as the all-too-willing beneficiary of an even more embedded — and accepted — misogyny in the American media and public life.

“Apparently sexism is OK and everything is (viewed as) racist now,” complained Greta O’Connor, a Beverly Hills artist who has been a devoted volunteer for Clinton — she just got back from Oregon.

O’Connor, an active participant on, is among the Clinton supporters who say the breach with Obama is irreparable. She dismissed him as the “blank screen everyone projects their hopes and dreams on.”

“We are going to work actively for (John) McCain, we are just not going to stay home,” she said.

O’Connor, who is in her 30s, said it would be the first time she voted for a Republican. “I’m probably going to have to take a valium before going into the booth.”

No less than for black voters (and others, especially young people, enamored with Obama), this campaign was a tantalizing once-in-a-lifetime moment for many women.

“The Democratic Party has to deal with cries of outrage either way,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the nonprofit National Research Center for Women and Families in Washington.

Zuckerman, who worked a year for Hillary Clinton when she was first lady, said she has heard from many Clinton supporters who are “absolutely not willing to vote for Obama” if he is the nominee.

“They are either not going to vote or vote for McCain,” she said, calling it a reaction to “how horribly (Clinton’s) been treated — the best and perhaps last hope of a woman president in their lifetime.”

Debra Kozikowski, the vice chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and an uncommitted superdelegate, understands the hurt. “When you lose it feels like a divorce,” she said.

But she said it is crucial for Democrats to appreciate how the two candidates broke through both race and gender barriers this year. “Maybe for women it’s been cracked and for African-Americans it’s being crashed,” she said. “It’s a good thing.”

And, Kozikowski added, “I’m 53, and I think the fear of not having another woman candidate who is credible and electable in our lifetime is unfounded.”

The Democratic hope is that as tempers cool, Obama will be able to mend the broken hearts of Clinton women — with help from McCain.

As Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and strategist with a special expertise in women candidates and women voters, said in an e-mail written in the style of a telegram: “I truly believe that McCain will unify Democratic women. His record on women’s issues. Can easily unite women. His policies are much more likely to appeal to men than women.”

There are also those women who have chosen Obama over Clinton as the truer embodiment of feminist values.

In a recent posting on the Huffington Post, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, “As a generation of young feminists realizes, the values once thought to be uniquely and genetically female — such as compassion and an aversion to violence — can be found in either sex, and sometimes it’s a man who best upholds them.”

At Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Michele Glorioso, a graduate student in women’s studies who started the Feminists for Obama group on the campaign Web site, agrees. “I tell people that if Bill Clinton was the first black president, then maybe Barack Obama will be the first woman president.”

In Seattle, Linda Hall, a 57-year-old free-lance copy editor who has considered herself a feminist since her teens, said she is, “against demographic type, an Obama supporter.”

But she has been acutely aware of the sexism in the coverage of Clinton and the “unconscious dismissal of the notion that women would have a strong interest in electing one of their own, even while talking matter-of-factly about black voters’ identification with Obama.”

Hall said she was impressed that through it all, Clinton emerged as the candidate whom voters viewed as the “stronger leader.”

But now that it’s clear Clinton can’t win, Hall said, “It’s a mystery to me why she is still stringing these people along.”

Over in Tacoma, Janet White is waiting for Clinton to signal how she should behave toward Obama. Until then, she said, Obama would continue to remind her “of every junior executive I had to train to fill a job that a qualified woman didn’t get.” She has sent a message to local, state and national Democratic officials that she will spend “not one dime and not one minute” on Obama’s behalf.

“Millions of women, whether they say it or not, are thinking the same thing,” White said. “We are simply feeling too betrayed by those who have backed this arrogant, if talented, upstart against a woman of accomplishment who reflects our desires and values.”


Written by jonathantilove

October 22, 2008 at 1:58 am

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