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.