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Dems’ standoff: the latte-lager divide

Clinton supporters cheer during a rally in St. Clairsville, Ohio.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Clinton supporters cheer during a rally in St. Clairsville, Ohio.

Listening to the commentators, you get the impression that the epic struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination is a matter of momentum.

Sen. Barack Obama won Iowa, then Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton took New Hampshire. Obama surged ahead again with an 11-state winning streak, only to see Clinton forge another comeback this week with victories in Ohio and Texas.

But that’s not what’s happening.

It’s not as if Democratic voters keep changing their minds, swerving toward one senator and then the other, hoping to get on the winning side. It’s not as John Spratt, the South Carolina congressman, suggested when he said after Tuesday’s voting, “It’s a horse race again.”

Two distinct, consistent groups
It’s not. There are simply two types of Democratic voters who have been remarkably consistent in their preferences all along, two types of Democrats who see politics in distinctively different ways. It’s less a horse race between these groups than a standoff.

Obama appeals to younger, idealistic, more affluent, more educated Democrats and independents who don’t want much from their government except the hope that politics will be conducted differently. It’s their assumption that Obama would bring a fresh, less cynical approach to problem-solving, both at home and abroad. That’s what drives Obama’s support. That’s what he means by “change.” His coalition also includes an older brand of identity politics in the form of African-Americans, who have turned out in large numbers for the young senator.

Clinton appeals to older, less affluent, less educated, more traditional Democrats who want specific things from their government — like better health care and programs that promote jobs and economic security. Women, Latinos and urban Catholic voters are important parts of her coalition. It is essentially the same lunch-bucket coalition that Franklin Roosevelt assembled 75 years ago. For this group, experience and reliability trump promises of creativity and innovation. It’s a no-nonsense crowd. “Where’s the beef?” is a question they might ask about Obama.

It’s not a new question, and it’s not an altogether new split in the Democratic Party. Walter Mondale famously asked the beef question during his 1984 primary race against Gary Hart, a Colorado senator who appealed to a younger, idealistic crowd. The line was from a Wendy’s commercial that accused fast-food competitors of skimping on the most essential ingredient: the hamburger patty itself. (The sentiment worked for Mondale until the general election when, ironically, he was swept away by the gauzy idealism of Ronald Reagan’s poetic “It’s morning in America.”)

A wine-beer split
With no appreciable differences on policy, the cultural separation of the Obama and Clinton voters has been getting a lot of focus. “An emerging theme has been the Starbucks-Dunkin’ Donuts divide, also known as the wine-track/beer-track split,” said Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach.

“The conventional wisdom goes that a Prius-driving, cappuccino-sipping voter with decidedly strong opinions about pinot noir vs. merlot will vote for Obama, while the beefy Pabst-chugging guy with the tattoo and a cigarette behind his ear is surely going to vote for Clinton.”

The prime espouser of this analysis has been Ronald Brownstein, the former Los Angeles Times columnist who’s now political director for the Atlantic Media Co., publisher of the Atlantic and National Journal magazines. Brownstein wrote a National Journal piece after the 22-state Super Tuesday primaries that outlined the basic contours of the race. The candidates emerged running step for step, he said, “and still dividing the party along the same lines of gender, education, income, age and race that have shaped their duel through the first contests.”

Brownstein quoted unaffiliated Democratic pollster Mark Mellman as saying, “He has got a coalition of upscale whites and African-Americans; she’s got a coalition of downscale whites and Latinos, and those two coalitions are holding. And, as you move from state to state, in some places that coalition is going to advantage her and in some places that coalition is going to advantage him.”

Forging a new Democratic coalition
Brownstein’s piece recited percentages of the various splits in demographic voting. Then, three weeks later, he added more detail in another National Journal analysis, asserting that the “crucible” of the 2008 primaries are forging a new Democratic coalition.

This coalition appears to favor Clinton in the remaining high-profile primaries. Older, more traditional voters dominate Pennsylvania. Re-voting in the disputed states of Michigan and Florida may also favor Clinton. But Obama’s profile works better in the general election against McCain in the fall.

Looking toward November, Brownstein said that the drawn-out Clinton-Obama contest was expanding the party in dramatic ways and turning younger voters toward the Democrats. Exit-poll data from 2004-2008 show the party “growing younger, more affluent, more liberal and more heavily tilted toward women, Latinos and African-Americans,” he wrote. These changes represent a convergence of long and short-term trends that helped Democrats win control of Congress in 2006 and give them a good shot at capturing the White House in 2008. Obama has been both the greatest cause and reaped the most benefit from these changes, Brownstein suggested.

He quoted Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for President Bush’s 2004 election campaign, as saying: “These are long-term opportunities that could change a generation of leadership in the country and give the Democrats a huge leg up on obtaining or achieving elective office. But it all depends on how they conduct themselves.”

Times says: Cut the bickering

Indeed, the New York Times’ lead editorial on Thursday was devoted to offering advice on how Clinton and Obama should conduct themselves. Stop bickering about who is most qualified to answer the red telephone at 3 a.m., the editorial suggested. “The plain truth is that neither has been tested as a leader in a national crisis, which puts them in the same company as virtually every other presidential candidate in history, including Mr. McCain.”

Instead, the Times, which nearly always backs Democrats in its editorials, suggested that the rival candidates start a high-level contest over which one of them can better clean up the mess left by the current occupant of the White House. “We’d like to hear fewer character attacks and a lot more discussion of the nation’s many problems after nearly eight years of failed Republican rule. That is the Democrats’ comparative advantage. They should start to use it now.”

Steve Berg, a former Washington Bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/07/2008 - 11:41 am.

    Foreign Policy in Focus published an article in which the staffs of Obama and Clinton were compared. Clinton’s were more hawklike, leading me to HOPE that one of the places Obama would institute huge change is our foreign policy. Not just Iraq, which seems to be the only topic discussed in debates, but our interference in the rest of the Middle East (including our demonization of Iran), of Latin America, and, next, our militarization of the entire continent of Africa, with the Dept of State hiring mercenaries to “help” African countries “stabilize” themselves. Empire (with access to oil and other resources) in the name of The Forever War on Terror and humanitarianism.

    How about REAL debates?

  2. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 03/07/2008 - 12:29 pm.

    I think you’ve accurately described the divide as the Clinonites would like to see it, but this beer-swilling farmer turned factory worker turned writer strongly begs to differ. Clinton has made inroads into my demographic, but only because of her campaign’s aggressive use of misleading information and outright lies about NAFTA.

    To the degree that the blue collar vote can be impacted by racism, Clinton has also worked overtime for those votes. The Clinton campaign distributed in Ohio a brochure in which Obama’s face was darkened, and then stretched to broaden his nose (widely reported by blogs but not by “real” news outlets). This is at the heart of what Clinton is doing to appeal to blue collar workers, employing disinformation and outright smears knowing that our lapdog press won’t call her on it.

    There are countless other reasons why the lager/latté scenario being floated by Clintonistas is as phony as Sen. Clinton’s concern for working people. Unions have backed Obama for the most part. Minnesota labor supported Obama overwhelmingly. John Edwards’ supporters, as strongly pro-union as they come, have largely gone over to Obama, as I have. Sen. Clinton’s labor positions cannot be separated from those of former Pres. Clinton, who stabbed labor in the back repeatedly, first with NAFTA and then on countless little battles he ceded to the viciously anti-labor Republicans because of his personal problems.

    Oh, and Ron Brownstein was Bill Clinton’s favorite pundit. It’s not surprising he’s pushing such a pro-Clinton piece of projection. Fortunately, this campaign is being decided by voters, and not fantasy league fanboy pundits.

    I’ve more than had my fill of Team Clinton scorched earth politics. This fall I’ll be voting for either Barack Obama, or Ralph Nader. I already tried voting for Nader once, so believe me when I say I’d rather be voting for Obama this fall before kicking back with a beer to watch the election returns.

  3. Submitted by Paul Scott on 03/11/2008 - 11:17 am.

    I support Obama, and I also drink latte, went to college, own a kitchen with a professional range and work in communications, so I guess this analysis can point to these meaningless details about my life as proof of its premise that the Clinton Obama divide is largely about lifestyle rather than ideas, people or politics.

    The problem is that I also drink lager, and I also want my government to provide better services for Americans in need, and that sort of makes me look like the cartoon that has been drawn in this argument about Clinton supporters, which, incidentally, seems unfamiliar with America in 2008; My guess is that the victory of the Starbucks brand has permeated even the lives of Pabst drinking Americans, if these people even exist. In fact, the very invocation of brands in the explanation of our society is a reminder of how deeply our perspective on one another has become clouded by marketing.

    What would be more helpful and perhaps even more original would be an analysis of the two blocs of voters that looked at how Americans read people. I will offer my experience as a brief explanation: Personally, my support for Obama is neither rabid, nor engendered from any rapture I had while watching him speak. I can’t say I have even watched a single Obama speech. I know he wants to have better relations with the rest of the world’s governments, and I like that. After 8 years of Bush that seems like a good place to start — from a position of humility for all the carnage our nation has caused in the name of our wounded pride.

    But I was for Edwards first, because I heard him laying out a speecific case for economic justice and greater opportunity for the disadvantaged in this country. Moreover, while I voted for Bill Clinton twice, I have never once seen Hillary Clinton as someone whose first interest apeared to be the best interest of this country. Like Maureen Dowd, I base my distrust of her on my perception that she and her husband care first and foremost about their political fortunes. Watching her desperate-seeming vacillation from affection to attack to affection in recent weeks, her ever changing political persona as she cbounces from state to state, only confirms this sense. Then there is the pandering: Perhaps it is because I am a writer and listen to words, but it is like a red light begins blinking every time I here her speak: Platitudes, Platitudes, Platitudes. I am sure she is sharp as a tack but I don’t see her having any trust in her intelligence, given the blandness of her talk.

    That said, I have to accept that such a light never begins blinking for a sizable number of my fellow Democrats, and that has caused me to think that we do not perhaps share as much in common as I once thought.

    Paul Scott
    Rochester, MN

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