What role did race play with white Democrats?

As the primaries end, a round table of experts -- Tom Schaller, Ruy Teixeira and Sean Wilentz -- weighs the influence of white racism on the Clinton vs. Obama contest.

Topics: 2008 Elections, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, Paul Shirley,

What role did race play with white Democrats?

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The Democratic primary season ends Tuesday with contests in South Dakota and Montana. Barack Obama will finish the epic, five-month slog with more delegates than Hillary Clinton and, most likely, the Democratic nomination. Ever since Clinton’s surprise victory in the long-ago New Hampshire primary, however, there have been questions about the role of race in the voting behavior of white Democrats and what that might mean for Obama’s prospects come November. Specifically, observers have pointed to electoral results that show that less-educated whites and white residents of certain geographic regions preferred Clinton to Obama at higher levels than better-educated whites and whites nationally. Exit polls also seemed to support the idea that race had played some part in Clinton’s heavy margins among white voters in states like Kentucky.

Salon decided to convene a round table and ask one uncomfortable, unavoidable, and inexhaustible question: What role did race play in the voting behavior of white Democrats in 2008? Three experts in the interaction of race, class and voting behavior agreed to participate. Sean Wilentz, a historian at Princeton University and contributing editor at the New Republic, is the author, most recently, of “The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008.” He has been a prominent supporter of Clinton’s presidential campaign. Ruy Teixeira is a fellow at the Century Foundation, the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the book “Why the White Working Class Still Matters” and coauthor of the recent paper “The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class.” Frequent Salon contributor Tom Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and the author of “Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South.” The conversation was moderated by Salon news editor Mark Schone.

Salon: Let’s start by asking each of you in turn what you think the role of race was or how important it was in decision-making by white voters.

Tom Schaller: I guess I’d start by saying that you’d have to be crazy to suggest that race didn’t matter in this primary, both for black voters and for white voters. But since we’re focusing on white voters only, I think it’s very clear from the results that there are differences in at least the support for and appreciation for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Whether that is motivated by race, racial antipathy toward Obama, or whether it’s motivated by a historical connection to the Clintons, or Bill Clinton, or Hillary Clinton specifically, it’s a little difficult to disentangle. But I think the pattern is relatively clear, particularly with some white voters, particularly with non-college- educated white voters, downscale voters, whatever label you want to use.

The unfortunate, from a small d, democratic standpoint, the unfortunate lesson that we learned from this 2008 primary, is that no matter who wins, no matter what the result is or what the impact is in the general election contest against John McCain, the notion that racism is something that has been relegated to the Republican Party as an identity problem or as an intraparty problem is simply a fiction. And that, whatever the magnitude of it is, there is still a significant racial undercurrent within Democratic Party politics, and I think it is something that Barack Obama, presuming that he is the nominee, is going to have to deal with.

Ruy Teixeira: Actually, I’d say the short answer to the question of how much race was involved in a pure sense in terms of decision making in the Democratic primary process and how much it will play going forward is that we don’t know. We do know it was a factor, but we just don’t know how much of one because I think the data don’t permit us to make that kind of judgment. It’s essentially impossible to disentangle the extent to which people voted for Hillary Clinton because of Obama’s race or because they liked the general way Hillary approached politics and economics or because they were more culturally comfortable with her or because they knew about the Clintons or they were generally more familiar with Hillary. These are all things that probably correlate pretty well with the demographics of the people who wind up heavily favoring Hillary, including these white working-class voters. Especially if we couch it as racial bias, that what kept these voters, these white voters from voting for Obama was racial bias, we have to be careful in inferring too much. And as I think Tom was implying, it’s a question of magnitude. There is clearly an effect of some magnitude here, but how great is that effect? And we just don’t know.

Sean Wilentz: I think very differently. Race has primarily played a factor to help Barack Obama. Not only with the African-American vote, which is fairly clear, I mean it’s obviously clear, but with some white voters as well. I think that the idea that Hillary Clinton has suddenly gained a lot of support from racists, which we call “low information” voters, things like that, is just a myth. I mean, in fact, if you look over the exit polls, she’s done much better in the votes since March, in fact, most of that support can be accounted for over the last three months, for greater support among upper and middle income white voters. It’s not [these] mythic Appalachian, racist whites. That’s a very small percentage of her pickup over Obama over the past three months. So I just don’t buy it. I think certainly there’s an element of that there, but I think that it’s very, very small.

Salon: So what does it mean then, when a white voter tells a pollster that race was “important” in choosing one candidate over another? How many answers are contained in that answer?

Teixeira: I think if we clarify what the question actually was it helps clarify how much it might mean. The question was, was it one of several factors, the most important factor or not a factor, right? The larger group was the people who said it was one of several important factors and basically they lumped the most important factor folks in with the several important factors, so that can be a little deceptive. So what does it mean when somebody says it’s one of several factors they considered? Does that mean they otherwise would have voted for Obama but they’re racist [and] they voted for Hillary? I think there are a lot more benign interpretations and positive answers to that question. It’s certainly the case that whites who responded who said it was one of several factors were likely to favor Hillary over Obama, but I think you have to be careful about the interpretation you make about that relationship.

Wilentz: You also have to disentangle white voters who voted for Barack because he is black.

Schaller: But I would also add to Sean’s point, which I think is a fair point, that Hillary’s increase came at the cut point in the campaign when it became clear Obama was going to be competitive, if it’s true that her increases were among more middle- and upper-class whites, in other words, she chipped into the white-collar whites that Obama was banking on, or was doing better among earlier in the process, you can’t even disentangle that. Sean might say, I don’t want to speak for him, but he might say, that’s because she was speaking more about economic populism and that was resonating with them. Or they just liked the way she was comporting herself in the campaign after she had her tough month in February. The other way to interpret that, and I’m not suggesting this is the way that I interpreted that, the white vote became more uniform for her and it wasn’t just downscale whites — however we want to define them. It became a more uniformly white vote titled toward Hillary and a more uniformly black vote tilted toward Obama. And even that, you might not be able to say that’s a racial factor, but these things are happening around the time of the Jeremiah Wright issue and perhaps, I think it’s at least fair to suggest or entertain the notion that Barack Obama’s support among more upscale, college-educated whites was pretty solid initially, because he was viewed as this post-racial candidate, but when he was no longer viewed that way, people who were normally post-racial in their thinking maybe became, at least had a second thought about how they looked at him.

Wilentz: At some level, this all becomes sheer speculation. We don’t have individual voters saying why they voted this way particularly, it’s all aggregates, and you have to try to put it together. But I do think that to the extent that the media line about Clinton’s racist voter support has tended to be, at least among the pundits that I’ve read, concentrating on, particularly in the Rust Belt states, and particularly among, there are euphemisms for it, low-information voters, we all know what that means. The data don’t support that contention. That’s all. And why upper-middle class voters would suddenly be turned to Hillary, I don’t know. It could be any number of things, but I think it’s sheer speculation to say it’s based on Jeremiah Wright or racism or anything else.

Salon: But you can say there is a regional variation in the role of race or the importance of race or the willingness to vote for Obama among white voters. You can map that in the United States, right?

Wilentz: I think so, but I think there’s a cultural overlay to that map. And I think of all people, Michael Lind has done the most to bring it out. In places where you find a lot of Greater New England, as it were [New England, the Upper Midwest, the Northwest], those are the places that are going to be much more pro-Obama than not. And that’s an old, old pattern that goes back through American history. And I think that’s right. I think you do find those cultural differences that cut across lines of income, race, all of the above. This is where the historian gets to pitch in, right? Those historical factors are very important. They’re cultural and they’re very, very difficult to capture in a poll. In fact, almost impossible.

Teixeira: Sean, I’d agree with a lot of what you say. That a lot of it’s cultural overlay on the race issue and in fact, people tend to label anything that’s correlated with race about race where it actually could be about lots of other and broader things. And in particular the Democratic Party has a sort of image in certain areas of the country among certain voters, particularly downscale voters, that’s somewhat unfavorable. There’s a certain cultural distance there, a sense of an elitism in the national party that Obama probably connects to in their minds. And they felt that Hillary connected less clearly to that. So is that race or is it culture or is it both?

Wilentz: And it also goes back to the split in the Democratic Party. Which is also historical, it goes back 40 years. And we all know about this. It goes back to ’68 in some ways, and it’s been aggravated ever since. It’s the old division between the “new politics” wing of the party and the “traditional working class” base of the party. We see that every four years and I think we may be seeing that again. But that’s not strictly correlated to race by any means.

Schaller: I think Sean is exactly right about this and it’s been overstated in the way that he’s indicated. And I don’t want to oversimplify the matter, but it’s a point I made actually in a piece for Salon about Hillary and the black vote is that, and there are exceptions to this, but basically if you look at, as Sean pointed out, every four years, the candidate who is the new politics, new left darling, whether it’s Howard Dean or whether it’s Bill Bradley or whether it’s Gene McCarthy, has historically fallen on the shoals of the white working-class vote because that candidate had, to put it as bluntly as possible, people like me, college-educated white people who live in urban areas with Ph.Ds, right. I’m sort of your quintessential — and probably other people on the call, I don’t want to speak for them, are quintessential Deaniac or Clean for Gene kind of voters. And that candidate would always make a big splash early in the contest and there would be a lot of media attention. Of course, the media is drawn from this community and so there would be a flash-in-the-pan candidate, but ultimately what would happen is working-class whites and working-class nonwhites would align behind another candidate.

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Wilentz: There’s one exception to all of this, who was Bobby Kennedy who might have been able to put together a coalition. The point is yes, what the current campaign has shown is that if you can, as Tom said, put together a coalition of the new politics Democrats and the African-American vote, then you can do very, very well in a Democratic primary season. That’s what we’ve seen. How that translates to November is a whole different matter.

Teixeira: Right, and that’s really what people are starting to debate strenuously at this point. And the point that I’ve been making about this is, if you look, it depends on the poll actually, but certainly in a lot of polls, Obama is polling where he needs to poll to win a pretty solid election victory among these white working-class voters. He’s actually doing well among college-educated whites. It’s not a perfect connection, but one would think that if race was such a big factor in driving the views about Obama, that he’d actually be doing more poorly among white working-class voters in trial heats than he is. And that he wouldn’t in fact be pulling in, in a lot of these polls, enough voters to win a pretty respectable election victory.

Wilentz: You mean in a McCain-Obama matchup?

Teixeira: Yeah.

Schaller: I hate to crystallize it, but in a sense, and they’re not equally proportionate in their size, but if you think of the Democratic Party as working-class whites, working-class blacks, which is almost a redundancy because of socioeconomic differences, though obviously there are some middle-class blacks, and then the elite class, whatever that is, the cappuccino, latte class … and trichotomize the Democratic Party coalition as those three things, if you can get two of the three you’re probably going to be the nominee. And I don’t want to speak for Sean, but I think his point is well, OK, but you need all three to win the general election and which two do you need to start with? And I suspect Sean would say that you need to start with the two working-class components because the college professor and the New York City liberals, they’re going to come home eventually. Whereas if you start with the cappuccino classes and the black coalition you don’t know if you’re going, and this is Hillary Clinton’s essential argument, you don’t know if you’re going to get the white working-class voters to come along in the end.

Salon: My interest is whether or not you alienate them, after they’ve chosen the other candidate, by telling them that they were bad people for choosing that candidate.

Wilentz: I think that’s an excellent point. The media is getting those voters very angry by saying that it is based on race.

Salon: We’re only talking about certain whites and their racial attitudes here because some of them don’t matter. They live in states that are not going to vote for Obama. I frankly don’t think the whites in Mississippi matter to the conversation.

Teixeira: Basically you can fiddle around with the data for Mississippi and show that it’s at least in the realm of possibility with black support and black turnout going [for Obama]. And if you could get a certain minimal percentage, say like 20, of the white vote in Mississippi and you actually could win the state.

Schaller: I’m looking at the numbers from Mississippi [in 2004, and the black vote] was 34 percent [of the total], at least according to the exit polls, I think according to the census bureau data it was closer to 36, and Kerry got 90 percent [of the black vote]. So if you assume that [this fall the black vote is] 37 percent with Obama getting 95 percent — Kerry got 20 percent of the white vote, [and Obama] would have to get, like, 35 percent of the white vote in Mississippi to win. In other words, he would have to not quite double but do a 75 percent improvement among white voters in Mississippi.

Salon: It’s so racially polarized. I remember it from 2004 being a 37 percent black state, and 37 percent of the state’s vote went for Kerry. It lined up exactly because the defections from either side were that minimal. And black turnout, if I recall, Tom, is pretty good, in Mississippi.

Schaller: It actually outperformed their share of the age-eligible population. Which is this other big myth, I don’t want to get too far afield on my own stuff, everyone keeps saying to me, Barack Obama is going to win these Southern states because of black turnout, and I think Obama can win, but he’s not going to win because of the South, because African-Americans [already] turn out at proportional rates to their age-eligible population. They were 17.9 percent of the age-eligible voters in 2004 and they were exactly that.

Salon: Tom has discussed before and numerous people have examined the tendency of white voters to vote more Republican as the black percentage of population in a county goes up. Mississippi being a prime example of that. Would anyone dispute that that happens? That white allegiance to the Republican Party increases as black population goes up?

Schaller: There’s no disputing that. I did a correlation between the black share of statewide population in the 11 confederate states and the share of Bush’s support among white voters, and it correlates at .76 with all 11 confederate states and if you take Texas out, which Bush obviously did well in, though it has a relatively low black population, with a data set of just 10 data points, it correlates at .9. Human height and weight doesn’t correlate at .9. With 10 data points, it’s ridiculous. I don’t even think this is an empirical matter of dispute.

Teixeira: I’m not going to argue with that.

Salon: In counties without a black population, specifically in Appalachia, which has been a matter of discussion, the reason for the preference for the white candidate in the Democratic primary, if it’s not racial, it’s what?

Schaller: I’ll punt on that one.

Wilentz: Appalachia is the exception. Because they’re voting for lunch-bucket issues. They always have. And to a certain extent for national security but that’s not the issue here in this primary. They went for Hillary not for the racial issues, they went for here for the reasons they said they did.

Schaller: But what is it about Obama’s lunch-bucket policies that are substantively different from Hillary Clinton that voters in Kentucky and West Virginia are going, “Oh, I’m going to get less in my lunch bucket” if I vote for Obama?

Wilentz: I think it’s a question of perception. I think the perception is that, this is actually holding this Sirota theory intact, you can hold that intact, but you can’t then assume that all the whites in Appalachia are Southern racists. Which some people have assumed.

Schaller: But you can’t assume that none of them are.

Wilentz: You can say that about any population. But I don’t think that it’s driving it. There’s no empirical evidence that it’s driving it, that’s for sure. Whereas, West Virginia has, going back to the New Deal, probably going back to the Civil War, when it became West Virginia … This is the most Republican part of the South. This is the least racist part of the South. But it was historically rather poor, when mining got going — I won’t give you a lecture on American history. But this is the part of the South that has been least driven by race among white voters, rather than the most.

Salon: There’s that band of states that goes from Pennsylvania over to Missouri that Bill Clinton won twice and those are pretty much the areas where Hillary Clinton has performed well. And I think that could conceivably support either a cultural argument of identifying with the Clintons or a lunch-pail argument.

Teixeira: The two things, they’re not unrelated, actually. They identify with the Clintons because they stood for the kind of approach to the economy with which these voters identified and they actually did pretty well under the Clintons. It doesn’t seem crazy to me.

Wilentz: It’s also important to remember that since the Democrats did the right thing in 1964, Lyndon Johnson did the right thing and there went the Solid South goodbye, the Democrats historically have had to win both Pennsylvania and Ohio to win the election. If they’re not going to win the South as Tom said, the numbers just aren’t there, and then we move to the West and how many electoral votes are out there? I still think it’s going to be tough for Obama, unless he can manage to shore up that central battleground which has been there for a long time. I don’t think a new coalition has come to supplant that.

Schaller: Well, I would actually agree. He can do it if he gets the three non-Arizona Southwestern [swing] states [New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada], because they have 19 electors, and that’s basically Ohio [which currently has 20].

Salon: How do you guys see the general election going in those states where we’ve discussed possible problems for Obama among white voters? If you had to game out Ohio and Pennsylvania and even, say, Missouri, how does it look right now to you?

Teixeira: I think he pretty likely takes Pennsylvania, probably takes Ohio and Missouri is a little bit more of a real tossup. In none of these states do I think is it impossible for McCain, this is all meant probabilistically, is it over 50-50 or not that he can take the state, and I put Ohio and Pennsylvania in over the 50-50 category. And I put Missouri, I’d be somewhat more optimistic about Missouri than some people, I’d put it as closer to a tossup. And that’s just based on the underlying demographics of the state, what issues are in play, how terrible a year is this for Republicans. Certainly, you can hypothesize that this could all get blown out of the water if the racial bias issue is bigger than I think it is or certainly than Sean thinks it is. Or perhaps even than Tom thinks it is. We could all be wrong about this.

Salon: When you look at the data for the critical states that we’re talking about, though, you don’t find them troubling?

Schaller: I think Obama can win and I think the demographics are not stacked against him in such a way that he cannot win, but I actually think one of the strange ironies about the Obama general election candidacy is what we’ve learned from his primary candidacy, which is that demography is extraordinarily probabilistic. Not deterministic, but the fact that [the Obama campaign] wrote a memo in November and they got every state right except for Maine and Indiana, I think, speaks to the fact that it’s hard to move people. So, the irony of his argument for general electability is that his campaign, by their own internal analysis, believes that people are predictable based on their demographic background. And his rhetorical argument is, I can move people from where they might be initially politically because I’m this transformative candidate. And I think there’s a central paradox to Obama’s candidacy, there’s a couple of them, but if there’s one from a demographic standpoint, I think it’s that.

Wilentz: I think that’s right and also with Ohio, the irony is, if he’s going to win Ohio, he’s going to have to do much better in the general than he did in the primaries in those areas like Youngstown. Those are the places where Hillary Clinton ran strong. It’s not a question of layover from the campaign, it’s just going to have to show that those people will vote Democratic, and if he can do that then he’ll do fine. But that’s still something that has yet to be determined.

Salon: Does he have the right message to reach the white voters who preferred Clinton in the primary or is he going to have to alter that message significantly?

Teixeira: I actually think his basic general election message is pretty good. I just think it needs some twists. People want change, obviously he’s got the change part, people want the country to be brought together, people want to go beyond race and class and red and blue and all this kind of stuff, and I think that’s catnip for most voters, including white working-class voters who are quite suspicious of the mess in Washington. I think where it needs to twist is connecting a little bit more specifically to the concerns, the lunch-bucket concerns of these kinds of voters. Put a couple of things on the table very prominently, and maybe that’s been a little harder to do in the primary campaign where they’re pretty similar. But when he gets up against John McCain, he’s going to want to relentlessly focus on a couple of things that will really bring out how he’s better, different than the other guy and really highlight McCain’s essential cluelessness on the economy. That seems to be a doable proposition.

Wilentz: If the Democratic candidate doesn’t do better than John Kerry did with white voters in 2004, then forget it. Kerry was clobbered among white voters by George W. Bush.

Teixeira: 17 points. Among whites.

Wilentz: I thought it was 23.

Teixeira: Among white working class it was 23 points.

Wilentz: You can’t do much worse than that. The question is how much better are you going to do? The message is, it’s in part a matter of lunch-pail issues, but let’s not count out national security altogether. I think there’s a way Democrats can fool themselves into thinking that because Bush has completely screwed up Iraq that therefore national security issues go to the Democrats. That’s a very unsafe assumption.

Teixeira: I don’t disagree with that. How do you suggest?

Wilentz: That’s the question.

Schaller: [The Democrats] only have to draw, Sean. They only have to draw on national security and the election is theirs. You’ll concede that point?

Wilentz: I don’t know. This is beyond me because I don’t know the numbers about it that well. It’s a question of dynamics and it’s a question about how McCain runs his campaign.

Teixeira: It’s interesting to note that even now, the national security issue having been highlighted, it’s more a national security election now between Obama and McCain than it’s likely to be later, because McCain has basically talked about what he’s wanted to talk about and Hillary and Obama have been cutting themselves up with knives. So it’s a pretty good time to be pushing the election in that direction. And yet, take the latest Pew poll, Obama is still ahead by three points, even in a poll in which he’s deemed not tough enough by a lot of voters, many more than John McCain on national security, he’s got a nine-point deficit among white voters. They don’t give a white working-class voter data point, but nine points, which is much better than John Kerry. So already he’s there. You would think that the dynamic as it unfolds and as it moves more to domestic issues whether John McCain likes it or not is going to make that even more favorable.

Schaller: For all the discussion of the Appalachian white voter, however you want to define it, which was made very real in recent weeks because of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and so forth, when you look at the election and pull this back to the lens of the actual electoral map and the states that actually matter, you’re talking about Ohio, Pennsylvania, maybe Missouri, as your Appalachian states that matter, and then really, the election in the last two cycles where it matters, in the Midwest, particularly the upper Midwest and the Southwest, and the white voters there are a little different. In the Midwest, yes, they’re a little more evangelical, but the Midwest has the highest high school graduation, it has the highest college graduate rates of any region in the country. And your independent voters in Colorado, in New Mexico and Nevada are potentially in play for Obama or for Clinton if she were to be the nominee. Those voters are transplanted voters, often from the greater Northeast, who moved down there because of property values and bigger communities and more control over their land and new jobs and a new economy, or they moved east from California. And Ruy and John Judis wrote about these sorts of communities: the Santa Fe-Albuquerque corridor, the Denver-Boulder corridor. So the white voter discussion, yes, is partially about the white Appalachian voter, but that’s only a third of the conversation in terms of where it really matters. We don’t really have to talk about the Barney Frank white voter in Massachusetts because that’s out of play and we don’t have to talk about the white voter from South Texas because that’s really not an issue, we need to talk about pretty well educated upper Midwest white voters and we need to talk about independent white voters in the growing suburbs of the Southwest and we, yes, we need to talk about Appalachian downscale, non-college educated or some college education white voters in Appalachian districts.

Teixeira: I agree with that and even a little bit more specific, if you look at a lot of these places, including even in some of these Appalachian linked states and certainly outside of it, one thing that’s kind of interesting, the sort of upper tier of the white working class if you define it in education terms, those with some college, which is a growing group compared to the rest of the white working class, they tend to be quite a bit more sympathetic to Obama than people with a high school degree or less. I think if Obama could possibly put more of those voters in play, that could make a difference in a lot of these states. It appears like a lot of these voters that have at least some college, a little more cosmopolitan, are a little less likely to reject Obama on cultural familiarity or even a racial basis. That could wind up making a difference in this election. I think there’s a problem because people hear the white working class, however it’s defined, they gravitate as if pulled in by a magnet to the idea that some blue-collar dude who works in a factory or something, has a high school degree, it’s so different than the way any reasonable definition of the white working class would be today. It’s such a variegated and highly diverse and much more upscale group than I think people are used to thinking about it.

Salon: One of the concerns that our readers have, as it looks like we’re nearing the end of [the nominating] process, though we’ve often thought that before, is the poll numbers that show the supporters of one candidate who will not support the other. I wondered if those statistics seemed at all unusual to any of you in relation to any other election cycle.

Teixeira: The answer to that is no! We’ve got that one, we’ve got that one nailed, thanks to Gary Langer of ABC News who compiled these data. Check out these data: In February 1992, only 63 percent of Democrats who didn’t support Bill Clinton said they’d vote for him; in 1996, 66 percent of the Republicans who didn’t support Bob Dole said they’d vote for him in the general election; in 2000, 64 percent of the people who supported Bill Bradley said they’d vote for Al Gore. And what is it today? It’s 64 percent of the people who support Clinton say they’ll support Obama. Exactly the same. Historical norms.

Salon: This time it’s not one white male versus another.

Teixeira: All I’m saying is that they’re not expressing any higher interest in defection than they have in previous cycles. It’s easily explained by being the middle of a contested primary process and you’re asking people if they’re going to vote for the other guy or gal if their guy or gal doesn’t get in, so of course a lot of people are saying they’re going to defect. But they’re probably pretty poor predictors of their own behavior.

Wilentz: You could explain it that way. But the thing that can’t be measured is the intensity of that expression. This campaign has been much more bitter than the ’92 primary.

Teixeira: We’re all bitter.

Wilentz: We’re bitter but we don’t cling. It’s been a hard-fought campaign and I think there’s been a lot of strain, so we’ll find out. We just don’t know.

Teixeira: Yeah, that’s right. Intensity of preference is not measured and you can’t know it and it hasn’t been asked historically, so you couldn’t compare it even if they asked it now.

Salon: But if it did follow a historical pattern, when he becomes the nominee, how quickly do the Clinton voters put aside whatever acrimony they have and come over? How fast does that happen?

Teixeira: I don’t know. I don’t have any data on that. I’ll suspect it’ll happen pretty fast, but I don’t know.

Schaller: I think the story of this nomination for Obama and his general electability, he’s pulled some pretty strong campaign decisions in terms of staffing, in terms of how he used the Internet, in terms of his message and so forth, but I think the big key moment for Obama is Hillary Clinton’s departure from the race. For as much as the media is focusing on how she gets out and how she comports herself and what she does, I think because he’s the nominee, by definition, it’s a far more important for him, perhaps even more important than the selection of his vice president. I just believe that. I just believe that he has to handle it, to borrow a phrase from Joe Klein’s “Primary Colors,” he has to handle it just right. And if he doesn’t handle it just right, I think he’ll do himself some serious damage. And so I assume the Obama people are aware of this and I assume they’re thinking about this, and unfortunately for them, it’s mostly going to be reactive. I think it’ll be a very good test moment for his political skill set. Which I think has been tested already, of course. But I think this is a different kind of test. Because white voters will be watching that.

Teixeira: Memo to the Obama campaign.

Schaller: I’m sure they’ve got a memo going right now.

Teixeira: Absolutely. They think of everything, and they usually come up with a pretty good plan. The Clinton people thought of everything, too, they usually just didn’t come up with good plans a lot of the time.

Schaller: Can I just say one thing about Obama and his post-racial identity, which I talk about at all public events that I do. The other thing that is the crazy wild card here, we just talk about him as a black candidate and her as the white candidate, and is America ready? But obviously, he’s just not your average black candidate, and not just because his middle name is Hussein and so forth, but the fact that he’s half-black and his black half is continental African. And that matters. And we don’t talk about that that much. But I think it’s [important]. There are so many things that are different about Obama from historical black leaders. He doesn’t come from a clerical background, which produced leaders over the years, whether it was Martin Luther King or Jesse Jackson or more recently Al Sharpton. He is half-black and so he’s not full-blooded black, so to speak, and whether you believe in one-drop racism or whatever, it does matter. He’s literally lighter-skinned. And that’s something that’s talked about in the black community and is going to have to be talked about in the white community. And that his black half is continental. It is different when your family is recently emigrated as opposed to being a slave descendant. And I think what’s going to be really interesting about all this Rorschach notion of how white America sees itself and how white America sees black America is about how it views Barack Obama as a sort of sui generis black candidate. He is not Al Sharpton, and I think that’s clear on so many different levels. But I think the question is, how much does his difference from Al Sharpton really matter?

Teixeira: How much indeed.

Schaller: That’s what white America has to unpack in this election, I think.

Wilentz: Al Sharpton never would have won the Democratic nomination for president. So we start with a whole different type of candidate, in terms of skin color or whatever. He’s a much more sophisticated candidate on so many different levels than even Jesse Jackson. We’re talking about a whole different kind of person. It’s not just a matter of race. It’s a question of how he responds, not just to the continuing primary process, but how he responds to John McCain, and how he responds to all of these issues. And we’re talking about someone who is, four years in the Senate, hasn’t been tested on the national level, who hasn’t really even been tested on the state level given the relative ease with which he won his primary and his general election in Illinois. I’m fascinated by it. I’m going to be very interested to see how he does in all of this. He’s done extremely well in the primaries. But as we know, a Democratic primary is a very different animal than a general election.

Mark Schone is Salon's executive news editor.

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