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Democrats and the Politics of Identity

By Blake D. Dvorak

A few days ago Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, stated the obvious. His chosen candidate, Hillary Clinton, he said, was in good shape to win the state's April 22 primary because "[y]ou've got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African American candidate." As swift as lightning, down came the curmudgeons of high sensitivity rebuking Mr. Rendell for injecting race into the campaign. In repentance, the good governor spent the next several days explaining what he really meant by using a different example: There are some men, he said, who won't vote for Hillary Clinton either.

In fact, there are a lot of men who haven't voted for Clinton, and there are a lot of whites who haven't voted for Obama. But there are also quite a few African-Americans who haven't voted for Hillary, just as there are a whole bunch of Hispanics who haven't voted for Obama. You get the point.

My colleague Jay Cost, as someone who not only knows what an ordinary least squares regression analysis is, but also knows how to perform one, has calculated that each of the states Obama has won since Super Tuesday played heavily to at least one of Obama's demographic strengths: states with either large African-American populations or, somewhat counter-intuitively, "homogeneously" white populations; states with high median incomes for white voters; states with low Hispanic populations; and states with low union membership.

Using this formula, Cost noted that it is possible to forecast the upcoming contests. So, for instance, Obama should do well in Oregon (homogeneously white) while Clinton should do well in Kentucky (low median white income). The model does not account for momentum, however, which Obama might have picked up by winning the last eight contests. But the larger point is that, given the demographic makeup of the remaining states, one can predict, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, just which candidate should do well in which state. In fact, on average, the remaining states favor Clinton slightly. Good news for her tear ducts.

But bad news for a Democratic Party that can no longer deny that it has a serious problem of identity politics. As long as the Democratic Party was nominating white men who were quickly able knock out the rest of the field, the coalition of competing interest groups defined by race, class, gender, or geography was in little danger of fracturing. But with Clinton and Obama - "one protected species ... running against a member of another," as Bloomberg's Margaret Carlson put it - the politics of identity has turned inward, like the Jacobins turning on the Girondins.

Quite a change of events for a party accustomed to using the politics of identity against the Right: Tax cuts for the rich; "nativist" immigration policies; disenfranchisement of minority voters; Trent Lott -- basically, John Edwards' whole platform. When employed across a broad spectrum like the Republican Party, the strategy works quite well in appeasing the various demographic factions. But when employed inside the party, those who once cried outrage at the slightest infraction now find themselves the ones charged with "insufficient sensitivity." And here all Gov. Rendell was doing was stating something the data empirically proves.

But for all their political expertise, the Clintons never saw it coming. What a shock it must have been for America's "First Black President" to suddenly find himself accused of intentionally demeaning a black candidate by comparing him to Jesse Jackson. Imagine the surprise in Hillaryland when the campaign's video ad showing a bunch of men picking on the woman was suddenly criticized for "playing the gender card." The thought must have sent waves of anxiety through headquarters: "How can we touch this guy if all the old tricks aren't working? Worse, the tricks are being turned against us." Those tears in New Hampshire certainly won't reap the same rewards in Ohio.

And there's more to come. According to The Politico, white men make up 46% of the superdelegates that could decide the nomination in Denver this summer. That's nearly half!

"It's still the old guard, the white men. They always want to control the outcome," an anonymous superdelegate told the newspaper. "But this time, they won't be able to do it." At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, much like our superdelegate friend here, those given the honor of superdelegate status are usually the most partisan, ideologically-driven folks in the party. They're like super-duper caucus-goers. And yet by virtue of their maleness and whiteness, Mr. Anonymous Superdelegate sees nothing but a threat to his particular interest group. Such are the absurd logical contortions one makes when all one knows is the politics of identity.

Republicans must be smiling while they watch foes like the Clintons subjected to the same tactics they once so freely exploited. The schadenfreude will be short-lived. This season of Democratic discontent will eventually end, the loose coalition of squabbling interests will regroup, and it will be back to identity politics as usual.

But if it hadn't before, there must now reside in the Democratic Party the fear that the Obama-Clinton contest has exposed fault lines of serious racial-gender-class fragmentation, any part of which could turn on another. Even Obama, who once had to endure questions of being "black enough," might one day stand accused of racial, class, or gender insensitivity, as the barrel of identity politics is ever in need of targets. Just ask the Clintons.

Blake D. Dvorak is an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics.

(c) 2008 RealClearPolitics

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