More good news from Election '08

Race was a "net plus" for Barack Obama. And a last look at Hillary Clinton, unlikely working class hero.

By Joan Walsh

Published November 9, 2008 6:03PM (EST)

Here is a great analysis by John Judis showing that, ultimately, despite all the dire warnings of a "Bradley effect," race didn't decide this election.

It's not simple, or simplistic. It's clear race cost Barack Obama votes in some Southern states and counties, where lower-income, less-educated white voters rejected him in higher numbers than they did John Kerry four years ago, despite the Democratic tide in 2008.

But overall Judis concludes that race didn't hurt Obama. In national exit polls, those who said race was a major factor in their vote backed Obama 53-46, suggesting that race was a "net plus" for Obama, Judis says. In some white states he outperformed Kerry, as well as the white Senate candidate (New Hampshire is one). I was particularly intrigued by what Judis says about Ohio:

Then there were states where Obama had previously encountered resistance on account of his race but that he carried in the election. These include some of the crucial battleground states. When Hillary Rodham Clinton defeated Obama in Ohio's Democratic primary last March, 20% of Ohio's voters said race was an "important factor" in their decision, according to exit polls. Of these, 59% voted for Clinton. That suggested about 12% of Ohio's white Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents opposed Obama partly or primarily because of his race. Primary voters, of course, are a small percentage of those who vote in a general election and, on average, are less likely to take race into account. So it was probably fair to assume that Obama could lose as much as 20% of the Democratic vote in November because of his race.

But in the general election, Obama carried Ohio Democrats by 9 to 1, and improved on Kerry's totals from 2004 among white voters. There was evidence that race was a factor -- 19% said it was "important" in their vote -- but Obama got these voters by 52% to 47%.

Canvassers in Ohio said Obama's economic message trumped race, and that seemed true in Pennsylvania as well. In white, working class Levittown, Pa., Clinton beat Obama 3-1 in the April primary. But last week, Obama slaughtered McCain there, getting more votes in the four municipalities that comprise the Levittown region than Kerry did. It's clear some people voted for Obama despite still harboring doubts about electing an African American. “I have to admit, his race made my decision harder,” Joe Sinitski told the New York Times. “I was brought up that way. And I don’t like his name. I’ll admit to that, too.”

I've said it before, but I'll say it one last time: It's clear the long primary was good for Obama. Hillary Clinton showed him the primacy of economic issues in the big eastern and midwestern states, and modeled a kitchen-table appeal that could win those voters. Obama's pitch in October and November was far more focused and populist than it was in March and April (of course, the September economic crisis helped) and people liked the difference.

There's another observation worth making about Clinton's primary campaign. One thing got lost in the debate over her run, over whether she should have quit earlier,  how many of her supporters were racist, and so on: It was an amazing accomplishment -- for Hillary Clinton and for America -- that Clinton became the standard bearer of the white working class, especially blue collar men; that she, of all people, became the person who pointed the way toward winning back Reagan Democrats.

Remember that we're talking about Hillary Clinton here. In the 1990s, a political industry was devoted to making her the poster girl for emasculating radical feminism and left-wing politics. Long before Obama was being smeared as a Marxist, Clinton was fending off those charges (Remember "It Takes a Village" as a prescription for socialism?) For a lot of people, especially men, she was far worse than her husband. One thing I couldn't believe during the primary was the number of male friends who simply despised her in the 1990s, who voted for her in the primaries this year.

Looking back, it's clear many Obama supporters were too busy blaming racism for her success, while Hillary backers were too busy blaming sexism for her failure, to appreciate what a huge triumph for feminism and social justice her 18 million votes represented.

So congratulations to white people who overcame their prejudices to vote for Obama. Congratulations to working class men and women who overcame the right-wing's depiction of Hillary as radical harridan to vote for her in the primaries. Congratulations to all of us. Obama will become president in a global crisis, but the country behind him has never been stronger.


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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2008 Elections