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Obama, Clinton Face Political "Identity Crisis" With Voters?

Monday, 11 Feb 2008 | 2:56 PM ET
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama
AP
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

Barack Obama scored impressive weekend victories over Hillary Clinton in several Democratic presidential nomination contests. He’s well positioned for this week’s voting in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

But neither candidate has achieved what’s most important for deciding their battle. That is breaking the pattern of voter preferences that have structured their competition so far.

That pattern-- driven by demographics and electoral mechanics--has proven more powerful than momentum or the candidates’ policy messages. In the quest for delegates over the next three months, they’ll be wrestling the pattern as much as each other.

It stems in part from what’s sometimes called “identity politics” –-not surprising in a race with two history-making candidates.

Mrs. Clinton, who would be the first woman president, has dominated among women; Mr. Obama, who would be the first African-American president, has dominated among blacks by even more lopsided margins. Mrs. Clinton, drawing on memories of prosperity during her husband’s presidency, has held steady advantages among Hispanics, older voters and blue collar whites. Mr. Obama’s inspirational “Yes We Can” message has produced an edge among young people, independents, college graduates and higher income Democrats.

Those disparate collections can to some degree be distinguished using labels: Mrs. Clinton’s as more moderate, Mr. Obama’s more liberal. But “the ideological differences clearly seem to be driven by demographics,” observes Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.

Those differences have helped define another important element. While Mrs. Clinton has performed best in primaries, such as New Hampshire and California, Mr. Obama has excelled in caucuses that turn on organizational prowess, from the kickoff event in Iowa to the Washington and Nebraska contests over the weekend.

That’s partly because Mr. Obama invested more heavily in grass-roots organization in his bid to overcome Mrs. Clinton’s establishment advantages. Moreover, the time and information required for caucus participation attract demographic elites drawn to the Illinois senator in the first place--his “Starbucks Democrats,” rather than Mrs. Clinton’s “Dunkin’ Donuts Democrats,” as former Al Gore aide Chris Lehane puts it.

Thus it’s easy to project upcoming areas of strength for each candidate. On Tuesday Mr. Obama can expect to dominate in heavily-black Washington DC, and he’s favored in Maryland, which has an above-average proportion of both African Americans and college graduates. Mrs. Clinton has a better chance in Virginia, where working class NASCAR fans remain an important constituency.

On Feb.19, Mr. Obama will be favored in Hawaii, because he grew up there and because it’s a caucus state. Mrs. Clinton has a better shot in Wisconsin, where the African-American vote is relatively small and the blue-collar vote relatively large.

But Mrs. Clinton’s most promising venues lie in the big March 4 primaries. One is Ohio, an emblem of Rust Belt economic change; the other is Texas, where Hispanic represent a dominant force. Mr. Obama may somewhat offset her strengths with more money for advertising and both states’ “open” rules permitting independents to vote. Independents may not vote, however, in Pennsylvania’s April 22 primary--another Clinton target.

Either candidate, however, may yet forge a new pattern.

“Barack has to drive an economic message that connects with the individual hopes and fears of voters,” says Democratic strategist Carter Eskew. Mrs. Clinton aimed a dose of inspiration at upscale voters with her lyrical remarks the night of Super Tuesday vote – and has quieted the attacks by Bill Clinton that so offended Democratic elites.

One factor muted thus far could also change the pattern: momentum. The front-loaded calendar, veteran strategist Tad Devine believes, has so far blunted momentum from one state to the next. But “momentum can be the driving force in this stage,” Mr. Devine says, since voters have more time to absorb who’s moving ahead and who’s lagging behind. If he’s right, Mr. Obama could gain an edge beginning this week.

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