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An American civil war

The contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama seems set to run all the way to the party convention in August, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

india Updated: Mar 06, 2008 21:22 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

The Democratic Party leadership is having kittens. The US presidential race, which should have been a shoo-in, is devolving into a battle royal within their own ranks. The contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama seems set to run all the way to the party convention in August. The convention is supposed to radiate unity and conviction. By then, the donkey symbol may represent neither.

Between Super Tuesday and the Wisconsin primary, Obama was a runaway train. Then it all ran off the tracks when Texas and Ohio went to the polls this week. Why did this happen? The profile of Clinton’s victory in Ohio and Texas was slightly different in each state.

Texas was the real prize. Polls just days before the primary had shown Obama well ahead. The selection delegates also pointed to advantage Obama. Yet Clinton won the popular vote, if by a nose. At the heart of her victory: a surge in Latin voting turnout in Texas. An unprecedented 34 per cent of the voters were Latinos. She also held the line with white women, a group that was shifting to Obama in the past few primaries.

In Ohio, the danger was of Obama catching up with her. Again, she kept her own gender on her side. But her bigger success was getting most white men to vote for her — a group that had been trending to Obama. How was Clinton able to preserve her base and even take a bit away from Obama’s? Hubris played a bit part. Obama, believing Texas was in the bag, spent far too much time in other states, including a whole day in tiny Rhode Island just 72 hours before the vote.

But the evidence points to three developments behind Clinton’s comeback.

First, she used negative advertising to argue Obama was all style and no substance. “Hillary has found a positive rationale for her candidacy,” says pollster Craig Charney of Charney Associates. “She has transformed ‘experience’ into ‘solution’ and that works well against ‘change’.” In Texas, only a third of those who rated Obama as more ‘inspirational’ than Clinton actually voted for him. Second, the US economy is now the important election issue. Studies show that when bread-and-butter issues come to the fore, voters prefer leaders with experience. Says Tim Adams of the Lindsey Group, an economic consultancy, “The economy and related issues favour the generic Democratic nominee.” And that is Clinton.

Finally, Clinton fired away on national security. Obama’s worldview has revolved around Iraq, but this is a fading story. Beyond that, Obama seems to have few thoughts. When pressed by Clinton, he couldn’t think of an explanation of why, as chairman of a Senate committee on Nato, he had never inquired into Nato’s quixotic campaign in Afghanistan. This opened the door for Clinton’s ‘red phone ad’ and cost him heavily among lower-class whites who take the military and defending the flag seriously.

The battle now shifts to a set of Clinton country states: Pennsylvania and Indiana. Then it moves to Obama strongholds like North Carolina and Mississippi. Obama still maintains a 100-plus delegate lead. The expectation is that the two will roughly split the remaining delegates. Neither will have enough to clinch the nomination before the convention.

What is this likely to mean for the Democratic race?

One is plenty of savagery. Both began using attack ads, Clinton with greater success. Clinton’s advisor Harold Ickes has said digging deep into Obama’s past would be a key goal. Either the two strike a deal, says Charney, or it’s “scorched-earth tactics”.

Two is a hardening of class and race divisions within the Democratic ranks. There is a misperception that Obama’s race is a disadvantage with white voters. It isn’t. It’s a problem with other minorities. It is politically incorrect to talk about racial friction between Latinos and blacks — but it’s potent.

The class gap is opening up. If you are blue-collar college dropout, you’re with Clinton. If you are suburban and have Latin on your CV, you’re with Obama. Polls indicate that if Obama wins the candidacy, as many as a quarter of Clinton’s supporters will defect to the Republican side. Many white working class males see Republican candidate John McCain — youthful brawler and military hero — as more their kind than the Harvardian Obama. Finally, a hung convention could mean unelected superdelegates decide the contest. This would infuriate party members. Whatever the decision, it would look like a bunch of white males denied a ticket to a woman or a black. “Many Americans would be put off by a process that gave superdelegates the decisive vote,” says Ashley Wills of the lobby firm WilmerHale.

This hardly means the Republicans should expect to recapture the White House. Most polls still give any Democratic candidate a slim lead over McCain. McCain walks on two Achilles’ heels — his uncompromising support for the Iraq war and the suspicion of the religious right. But the Democratic nomination is now set to be a slugfest. History reminds us how, when the US was in the midst of the Vietnam war, the Democratic Party tore itself apart during the 1968 presidential campaign and allowed Richard Nixon to seize the Oval Office.