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The Race Card: A South Carolina Post-Mortem

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Last week, I wrote a piece about the playing of the race card before the South Carolina primary, and how I thought Hillary Clinton's campaign had maneuvered Barack Obama into a position where he couldn't win for losing. (http://www.opednews.com/articles/opedne_gregg_go_080125_the_politics_of_race.htm) Even if he won the primary, and it was viewed as a must-win for him, his reliance on South Carolina's large African-American vote to do so would label him the "black candidate" and presumably doom his campaign in the primaries to come.

Now with actual votes replacing prospective poll numbers, we can assess how well the strategy worked. My assessment is the Clintons' gambit almost worked, but it didn't quite work, and if it didn't work in South Carolina, the cradle of the Confederacy, it's hard to see where it will. This one's going to go on for a while.

As you recall, in the two weeks leading up to South Carolina, the Clinton campaign unveiled a calculated, sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so effort to paint Obama as the black candidate. Using surrogates, racially-charged code words, and finally the ultimate, highest-profile surrogate imaginable -- the Big Dawg, ex-President husband Bill -- they tried to force him into an identity politics corner.

African-Americans, highly sensitive to these kinds of tactics, immediately saw through them and began moving into the Obama camp in droves, as I suspect the Clintons knew they would. That was okay, even desirable. They were confident that, if Hillary won the nomination, they would return to the Democratic Party in the fall, and as Bill has often said, if you look past this election to the next one, you may not get there. While commentators were focusing on how bad Hillary was hurting herself with black voters, with whom she had always been popular, the real prize was the white vote.

Sure enough, polls leading into election day showed Obama pummelling Clinton among African-Americans, but more importantly, his support among whites had been driven down to as low as 10%. Had those numbers held, the ploy would have worked. But they didn't hold. Exit polls showed that while Obama indeed beat Clinton 4-1 among blacks, he also managed to hold on to 24% -- nearly a quarter -- of the white vote.

Although I'm in Ohio now, I spent most of the last 25 years in the South, first moving to Memphis from "up north" in 1983. At that time, any black vs. white election immediately devolved into a situation where each could count on 95% support within his community, no question. It was automatic. Any other "issue" was irrelevant. I was working for the local newspaper, but I had no interest in covering politics then, because there was nothing else to write about. This situation pretty much continued through the mid-'90s, when I left Memphis for Texas, where the black-white dichotomy is complicated by the introduction of a third group -- Hispanics -- and in any case, I was in Austin, which has city-state status -- the People's Republic of Austin, the Republicans call it.

So for Obama to get a quarter of the white vote against two white candidates -- one (John Edwards) a native son -- well, that's just downright awesome. And it's a mark of how the region is changing.

We got an important clue with Harold Ford's 2006 Senate race in Tennessee. True, he ran a very centrist, DLC-type campaign, and he did ultimately lose, but the Republicans played the race card against him as sleazily and as hard as they could, and he's a product of one of the most famous black political machines in the entire South. His last name screams "racial politics" to every white person in Tennessee, and he even had a high-profile State Senator uncle under indictment at the time. But in the end, he got about the same percentage of the white vote as the typical white Democrat does in Tennessee these days. The margin he lost by was very close to what Al Gore lost the state by in 2000. Meanwhile, the heavily black Congressional district in Memphis he left to make the run is now represented by the very liberal and very white Steve Cohen. I suspect he's still vulnerable to a primary challenge from an ambitious black up-and-comer (especially if he's named Ford), but he's there for now.

All of this would have been unthinkable when I first moved to the South in the '80s. Further, the exit polls (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21226006/) showed Obama's white support steadily growing the younger the voter. He actually beat Clinton and Edwards combined among whites 18-29. He lost to each among older groups, although he still got about a fourth of white voters between 30 and 60. Maybe school integration has a positive impact on racial attitudes, after all.

So the desired storyline did not come to pass. My hometown Columbus Dispatch cooperated with the plan, running the headline, "S.C. blacks hand rout to Obama", but that's not how it played out nationally. Obama's followers are as inspiringly post-racial as ever.

It's not surprising the Clintons miscalculated. In Bill's presidential runs, he carried his home state of Arkansas, Gore's home state of Tennessee, and the always weird state of Louisiana, but they pretty much conceded the rest of the old Confederacy (Florida is a hybrid). So they really haven't run a campaign in the South for 20 years.

But it's not your father's South anymore. And the Clintons got a problem.

 

Gregg Gordon is a writer, musician, activist, and otherwise ne'er-do-well in Columbus, Ohio. "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little." - Edmund Burke
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