If you want to understand Senator Obama’s campaign, you have to know some numbers. Basic math determines his strategy.
Women. The first number to know is 51. That’s the percentage of the electorate that is female. If you consider women an interest group, they are the largest and most powerful one in American political history.
I know, I know. Women are not a monolithic bloc. They don’t all think alike. Many won’t support Hillary Clinton for a variety of reasons. But I have yet to discuss the election with a woman who doesn’t have at least a little gleam in her eye when speaking of Senator Clinton.
The gleam is there whether or not the speaker supports Clinton’s candidacy. And polls show there’s a big gender gap in Obama’s support.
It’s not hard to see why. Over 87 years have passed since women got the vote. They represent more than half of our electorate. It is past time for a female president, and many women feel that hunger keenly.
Among professional women, the hunger is palpable. They have striven and made sacrifices in their own lives to break their own glass ceilings. Many have suffered without complaint, sometimes for decades, under better paid male bosses less smart and less capable than they. Whether or not they support Senator Clinton’s candidacy, they know that she carries the banner for their struggle. Because she is also a woman and a mother, Clinton understands their daily act of balancing family and career.
Barack Obama appreciates all this. He’s naturally empathetic, and he’s trying to break a barrier of his own. He knows he can’t achieve his own goals by trampling on women’s dreams.
That’s why he is circumspect in pointing out Senator Clinton’s weaknesses. That’s why you won’t ever see him “go negative”—let alone become an attack dog. The more he tarnishes women’s dreams of equality and real leadership, the more he sullies his own candidacy.
So Obama has to walk a delicate and dangerous line. He can reveal Clinton’s deficiencies only indirectly. He can tout his own qualifications, including demonstrated good judgment, moral consistency, and character. He can draw comparisons with Clinton on policy and matters of judgment. But he has to earn women’s respect and trust the hard way, slowly and carefully.
Further than that he cannot go. It’s not just that his candidacy promises a new kind of politics. It’s a matter of women’s understandable yearning for full equality and a rightful place in the nation’s leadership. He of all people appreciates that yearning. He knows what resentment he might invite just by appearing to oppose it.
But Obama must do more than avoid appearing to oppose women’s aspirations. He must actively support them. Already he has good plans for health care, education, child care, and family leave.
But his Website doesn’t tout the last two points; it hides them. The link to his page on Family and Community appears near the bottom of his “Issues” list, off screen on my computer. It begins with a point about fathers’ responsibilities and never mentions child care or family leave. His staff should push that material up several notches and bring it up to date. (The Website also needs immediate attention in another respect: the new registration screen blocks access to the site, has no obvious way for previous registrants to bypass it, and is likely to drive inexperienced computer users away. Obama’s computer geeks need to do much better.)
Perhaps Michelle Obama should get more deeply involved in the campaign. She is an attractive figure who can draw some of the female empathy that Senator Clinton relentlessly exploits.
But I think Obama must do still more. I hope he will announce his intention to appoint women to his Cabinet. I hope he will even publish a short list of prominent women committed to serve, preferably those with national name recognition and independent constituencies. He might even go so far as to name names for specific positions.
Although such a daring act would contradict conventional political wisdom, I’ve argued that likely appointments are among the most important things we can know about any candidate. Obama needs to do something dramatic to embrace women’s aspirations, and he needs to do it quickly. If he won’t announce female Cabinet appointments, maybe Michelle will have some other ideas. She’s lived the maternal balancing act, and she’ll have an even more difficult balancing act if Obama wins the primary.
Religious Voters. The next most important number is uncertain: 35 to 41. That’s roughly the percentage of evangelical and religious voters in the national electorate. Those numbers represent an average; religious voters reach even larger percentages in some states.
Next to women, these voters are the most important single interest group. They far outnumber African-Americans and Hispanics, each of which represents 15% or less of the electorate.
Some think that religious voters matter only in the general election, not the primary. That conclusion assumes that most religious voters are and will stay Republicans. But is that assumption right?
Two facts contradict that bit of conventional wisdom. First, as I have outlined in a separate post, evangelicals and other Christians, betrayed by Bush and Rove, are leaving the Republican Party in droves. Second, the Democratic Party is real Christians’ natural home. If Jesus were alive today and a member of a political party, he would almost certainly be a Democrat, if only to comfort sick children and the poor.
Obama has about sixty days to explain to Christian voters why they should support his candidacy. That’s one of the most important pieces of unfinished business in his campaign.
His campaign appears to recognize the point. It’s devoting a lot of effort to Iowa and South Carolina, where religious voters are important. It should make a broad and explicit appeal to independent and Republican religious voters to re-register as Democrats and vote for Obama in the primary.
African-Americans. Paradoxically, voters who share Obama’s African ancestry are one of the least important interest groups for his primary campaign. They represent only about 13% of the electorate. Except in southern states like South Carolina, where they represent much larger fractions, Obama can win without them.
If he wins the primary, he probably will do so largely without them. There are three reasons for this conclusion. First, African-Americans are small in number outside the South. Second, they have spent several decades achieving power and prominence in the Democratic Party. Key leaders like Charlie Rangel are firmly entrenched in the Democratic establishment. By and large, they support Clinton because she’s the establishment candidate. The rank and file may break with their leadership, but that outcome is far from certain.
The final reason is more important: low expectations. Having fought ingrained racism all of their lives, most African-Americans simply can’t believe that white America will vote for Obama.
They may be right. But Obama’s success depends upon them being wrong. He can and must win a majority of other voters. So his success among African-Americans is largely irrelevant to his primary campaign, except in states where they represent a far larger percentage of the electorate than the national average. (Only if Obama wins the primary, disproving fatalistic theories of racism, will African-Americans become a crucial constituency in the general election.)
Racists. There are undoubtedly voters who won’t support Obama under any circumstances just because of his African ancestry. Some of them are certainly Democrats.
But these voters are the “wild card” in the primary. No one has the faintest idea how many there are. There could be far more than we expect; there could be far less. Obama’s easy victory in downstate Illinois, which is mostly rural and mostly white, gives us reason for hope.
But no one will really know until the primary is over. Even then we probably won’t know for sure. These days few willingly confess to racism—whether to an exit pollster or to anyone else. In any event, the matter will probably turn on unconscious racism, not overt racism, which even the voters themselves don’t recognize. Pundits will have to infer the size of the racist vote from complex statistical calculations that are speculative and uncertain.
These points have practical implications for voting strategy. If you think (as I do) that Obama is the best candidate, you should vote for him regardless of whether you think the racist vote makes his victory unlikely. If your fears are right, your vote for Obama will do your party no harm: Obama will lose the primary and Clinton will represent the party in the general election. If you are wrong, a vote for Clinton would help put the weaker candidate forward for the general election.
Should you vote for Clinton for fear of racism in the general election? That strategy assumes that racism is more prevalent than sexism, i.e., that there are more voters in the national electorate who will refuse to vote for Obama because of race than will refuse to vote for Clinton because of gender.
That may be true, but it’s pure speculation. No one knows the relative size of the racist and sexist votes. There is no way of knowing even in theory, because voters don’t generally confess to being either racist or sexist. What’s more, unconscious racism and sexism are far more prevalent than their overt counterparts. There is no way to know in advance how important these factors will be.
The only thing you can know for sure is that voters are more likely to elect the better candidate. So a primary vote for Obama as the better candidate is a safe and proper vote.
Conclusions. Three general conclusions follow from this analysis. First, Obama must court female voters carefully and far more vigorously that he has done so far. Don’t push him to bash Clinton: that’s a good way to lose. Second, Obama needs a full-court press for religious voters’ support. He appears to be making it, discreetly, in the states where it matters most. Third, the only rational thing to do about the racist vote, which may be a phantom, is to ignore it. Obama seems to be doing just that, implying (with sunny optimism) that it doesn’t exist. That’s a good strategy.
So Obama’s campaign is doing some of the right things. It needs to do more, but its general strategy is fundamentally sound. All we can do now is work hard for Obama, hope for the best, and pray for victory for him and for us.
If he is destined to lose, going negative won’t save him from losing. But negativity could harm his long-term political future. He’s a young man with lots of years to give us, and he has to proceed with care.