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The Democrats' Southern Strategy By: Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, January 28, 2008

Pay no attention to the exit polls. That seemed to be the furtive message of the Obama campaign, following its Saturday night landslide victory in the South Carolina primary. As the dapper Obama was delivering the high-minded rhetoric that has become a stump staple – and as his supporters defiantly proclaimed that “Race doesn't matter!” – the cold data told a less wholesome story.

Behind Obama’s 55 percent to 27 percent drubbing of Hillary Clinton were some telling figures. Most notably, Obama overwhelmingly drew his support from blacks, who made up approximately half of the Democratic electorate in the state. Black women, seemingly immune to Clinton’s appeals for feminist solidarity, went for Obama by a solid margin of 4-to-1. Race does matter, it turns out.

As much was cannily forecast by Bill Clinton. Savoring his current role as the lead attack dog of his wife’s campaign, the ex-president shrewdly handicapped the result when he charged, in the days before the primary, that the Obama campaign was getting votes largely “because of their race or gender.” Translation: A white woman like Hillary “doesn't have a chance of winning here.”

That she didn’t win doesn’t necessarily vindicate Clinton’s assessment. Nor does it prove that the Clintons’ decidedly divisive tactics during the past week – among which were laughable allegations that the prosaically liberal Obama was a closet Republican – were solely to blame for the racially polarized result. After all, the results by race were similarly lopsided in Nevada, where Obama previously won some 80 percent of the black vote.

Nonetheless, Clinton’s loss casts into sharp relief the plain fact that the Democratic race has become stratified along racial lines, with blacks siding with Obama and whites and Hispanics favoring Clinton. Indeed, polls conducted just prior to Saturday’s primary showed that the cresting support for Obama among black voters was matched by a drop-off in support among whites.

This racial dynamic is not without irony. In past election cycles, Democrats and their surrogates have gleefully and promiscuously indicted Republicans for exercising a “Southern strategy” to divide voters by race. Now they must cope with the uncomfortable reality that the ugly forces they have attributed to their opponents are prominently at play in their own nomination process.

To be sure, those seeking to understand the phenomenon would do well to avoid the popular media. The Washington Post, in its summary of the South Carolina results, insisted that Obama won on the strength of “a biracial coalition,” a conclusion scarcely supported by the numbers, even if one takes into account that he took 25 percent of the white vote. CNN, in a headline more hopeful than accurate, declared, “Voters not swayed by racial politics.” It’s enough to make one reflect with sympathy on President Clinton’s complaint that the Obama campaign has been living a “fairy tale” created by sanitized press coverage.

What then can one learn from the dissolution of the Democratic race into squabbling identity politics? At least one prevalent conclusion – that the Clinton campaign is now in “crisis” and must moderate its strategy to win – appears off the mark. Strong though Obama’s performance was in South Carolina, it is unlikely to be replicated elsewhere. On the contrary, all evidence points to turbulence ahead for his campaign.

One obvious concern is that, with larger numbers of Hispanics and smaller numbers of blacks, upcoming states are markedly different in their racial composition from South Carolina. California, with its rich reward of 440 delegates, is a case in point. Just seven percent black, the state has a growing Hispanic population – 35 percent of the state is Hispanic – that favors Clinton by a 3-1 margin. Factor in the open animosity between blacks and Hispanics, itself the byproduct of mass immigration and economic competition, and the state increasingly looks like hostile territory for Obama, a fact reflected in the nearly 20 point lead that, according to Realclearpolitics.com, Clinton enjoys in the state. Key battleground states like New Mexico and Arizona are shaping up along similar plotlines, and Clinton has stable leads in “home” states like New York and New Jersey.

A compelling case could be made the Clintons are substantially responsible for the racial tensions roiling their party. But if the ultimate goal is to win, it’s difficult to see the flaw in their campaign strategy.

Not so in the case of John Edwards. It was just four years ago that the South Carolina-born Edwards triumphed in the state’s primary. This time around, he has utterly failed to gain traction, running a malevolent, quasi-Marxist campaign that every day threatens to set the bar for populist cynicism and demagogic excess. Edwards may prattle on glibly about giving “voice to millions of Americans who have absolutely no voice in this democracy,” but his dismal last-place finish on Saturday is only the latest sign that his campaign has passed its political sell-by date.

Popular wisdom holds that 2008 is destined to be a Democratic year. But it’s hard to believe that the divisive nomination battle will leave the party untarnished come the general election. For the eventual nominee, alienating whole swaths of the electorate might prove just enough to win the Democratic crown – and just enough to turn off the rest of the country.

Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com

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