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Race and the Democratic Party

By Susan Estrich

LOS ANGELES -- A funny thing keeps happening to Barack Obama on his way to victory against Hillary Clinton.

It happened in New Hampshire. It happened again in Nevada. It happened last week in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and even in New York.

It's not easy to figure out, but it deserves to be addressed.

In the days leading up to the voting, all anyone talks about is the wave of support for Obama, the momentum flooding in his direction, the crowds like they've never seen, the power of the unexpected endorsements -- whether from the Culinary Workers' Union in Nevada or the Kennedys (as in Ted, Caroline, and Maria Shriver) in California and Massachusetts.

Rumors fly, from people who usually -- and should -- know better, about panic in the Hillary campaign, massive firings, who is going to take over the campaign, and how soon she will exit from the race.

The conventional wisdom declares Obama the "winner" of whatever is to be won in the days leading up to the voting, whether it's the debate, the never-ending money primary, or the intensity meter.

The Obama people, after initially trying to keep expectations in check, end up getting swept up by the game, as they did this time, telling reporters the double digit lead that one poll found in California on the eve of the election was too big, and they'd be happy just to win, which of course they didn't.

The game doesn't end until the actual votes start getting reported. Even the exit polls lie.

This year, a headline on the Drudge Report, much talked about, was that Obama was huge in the exits. He was. Much bigger than in all the little polling booths across the country.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

I fell for it in New Hampshire. I studied all the polls, talked to all the reporters covering the candidates. I felt the doom and gloom from the Hillary supporters, and the exuberance of the Obama aides, barely controlling their confidence and optimism.

I listened respectfully to the reports that Obama's people had been told that there should be "no dancing in the end zone" while Hillary's people were saying that keeping their loss to single digits would be a victory.

I e-mailed everyone I knew, conveying the "inside word" that Obama was expected to win by 12- to 13 points. I took a nap, expecting to be up half the night trying to explain why Hillary's campaign wasn't over and why I had been wrong in downplaying the significance of Iowa with my detailed history of Iowa winners who went on to defeat in New Hampshire.

I wrote a column about the wave, but then the wave didn't happen. This time, at least, I wasn't fooled.

I listened to the reports about the crowds, the last-minute polls, the focus groups that handed the debate to Obama, the stories about the money pouring in and the power of the Kennedy name in Massachusetts and California.

I said what I honestly believed, what I had learned the hard way -- "I don't know...not necessarily.... don't trust the polls."

When people called me in a panic about the exits showing California too close to call, showing Obama with leads in primary states that Hillary was supposed to win, I took a deep breath and suggested they do the same.

I had a two word answer for all the folks who said it was over, that Hillary was dead, that all the money and momentum for Obama meant he would walk on water come the time for the polls to close.

Two words - New Hampshire. And New Hampshire it was.

It's not that Obama didn't do well, of course he did. He did very well.

But, California turned out to be as clear-cut a victory for Hillary as most people thought it would be two weeks earlier. The Latino and women's vote stayed with Hillary.

New York was a romp. New Jersey was easy. Even Massachusetts -- the most liberal state in the nation, where Obama won the endorsements of both Senators, Kennedy and Kerry, not to mention the newly elected African American Governor, Deval Patrick, even Massachusetts was Clinton country.

What is going on?

If you paid attention to the gushers in the press and punditry in the days leading up to Super Tuesday, Hillary was on her way to the morgue, murdered by her crazy husband's loose talk, abandoned by young voters and women and anti-war Democrats, and anyone else they could think of.

Not so.

Partly, it's a measure of Hillary's strength. But it's also a sign of Obama's weakness which, it seems, we who chatter for a living have been reluctant to speak about, lest we be tarred with having raised the "race card."

But, the fact is that there is a long pattern of what we in California call the "Bradley problem" in polling, after the former Los Angeles mayor who was elected governor in every poll, including the exits, except that he lost at the ballot box. Did I mention that he was African-American?

That was, according to the pollsters, the problem: about 10 percent of the electorate claimed that they were going to vote for him, and in many cases even told pollsters that they did, but they lied.

Shocking. Racism in America. Who'd a thunk it?

Doug Wilder, who wasn't elected to the Senate from Virginia, faced the same problem. We who are Democrats would like to believe that race is not a factor in the polling of our party members, but maybe we're wrong.

No one doubts, or at least no one who is honest does, that both racism and sexism come into play as people decide between Clinton and Obama, but could it be that people are more willing to admit that they won't vote for the woman than that they won't vote for the black?

If this is happening even among us good Democrats, what does that say about Obama's strength in a general election? Not pretty questions. Not a fair world.

But for Democrats who want to win, these are questions that must be addressed.

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