Should Obama have won?

January 18, 2008

Alan Maass examines one argument put forward to explain Hillary Clinton's unexpected victory in New Hampshire.

WAS BARACK Obama robbed of victory in the New Hampshire primary--and with it, almost unstoppable momentum going into the rest of the race for the Democratic Party presidential nomination--by the racist fears of white voters?

That claim has emerged in some quarters on the Internet and even in the mainstream press to explain the surprise comeback victory of Hillary Clinton.

Clinton's win, though by a narrow margin, was one of the most unexpected election turnarounds in memory. Even the Clinton campaign's own internal polls predicted a defeat in New Hampshire, by a double-digit margin--and more than a week after the vote, the polling organizations that universally got the outcome wrong can't agree on what happened.

Some commentators believe, therefore, that Obama must have been a victim of the so-called "Bradley effect"--named after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who lost the 1984 election to be California governor after leading by a wide margin in opinion polls. In this and other cases, voters seemingly told pollsters they would support an African American candidate, but switched to the white opponent in the privacy of the voting booth.

But the evidence of the "Bradley effect" coming into play in New Hampshire is thin.

For one thing, the polls that showed Obama coasting to victory predicted his eventual share of the vote about right, at 37 percent. So Obama supporters didn't switch at the last second. What the polls missed was the strong turnout for Clinton, which was the result of a superior campaign machine, organized by veteran operatives, with the support of most local party leaders.

Clinton's big advantage was among women, who turned out in huge numbers, making up 57 percent of voters. Whatever their motivations--excitement at the prospect that she could become the first woman president, solidarity over the media's miserable treatment of her, hope that Clinton would defend their interests--racism doesn't figure prominently among them.

If it did, someone would have to explain how the "Bradley effect" affected white women voters in New Hampshire--but not white men voters, a majority of whom supported Obama.

The importance of this question goes beyond why the pollsters failed in New Hampshire. The idea that Obama was a victim of a racist backlash would seem to be at odds with the political backdrop of the election campaign so far--above all, the widespread popular rejection of the Bush presidency and the desire for an alternative to the years of conservative dominance.

In fact, almost all of the evidence for a "Bradley effect" in voting comes from the 1980s and early 1990s. Last year, the Pew Research Center studied campaigns in 2006 that pitted an African American candidate against a white candidate and didn't find the same discrepancies.

This fits with longer-term changes in political attitudes. As recently as 1984, 16 percent of people in the U.S. said they wouldn't vote a Black candidate for president. As of 2003, that number was down to 6 percent, and when Newsweek asked the question last year, it was 3 percent.

Also, the "Bradley effect" has typically appeared in general elections--often in the context of a campaign sharply polarized over racial issues, like the 1989 New York City mayoral election pitting Rudolph Giuliani against David Dinkins.

Conservative but "loyal" Democrats who wouldn't admit to having racist ideas went over to a Republican when they actually cast their ballot. But in a Democratic primary, such voters would be supporters of some other candidate, and feel no "disloyalty" or "stigma" that they wouldn't admit to a pollster.

THIS ISN'T to say that race and racism no longer figure in American politics--quite the contrary. But they didn't play out along the lines of a "Bradley effect" in New Hampshire.

The irony behind the suggestion of a "Bradley effect" is that issues of race have barely figured at all in the Democratic campaign so far. Obama has been criticized by other Black figures for avoiding any discussion at all of, for example, the struggle for the Jena 6 against Jim Crow-style injustice in a Louisiana town.

This silence on race may change. As part of her counter-attack against Obama in New Hampshire, Clinton declared that Martin Luther King may have given some nice speeches, but it took a president with no connection to the civil rights struggle, Lyndon Johnson, to get the Civil Rights Act passed.

This absurd claim--that Blacks have a Dixiecrat to thank for the end of Jim Crow segregation--became an issue after New Hampshire, with Obama's supporters challenging Clinton's claims, and the Clinton campaign accusing Obama of "injecting race" into the debate.

The issue could loom large in the upcoming South Carolina primary, where African Americans are about half the electorate.

In the end, the Democratic results in New Hampshire matched almost exactly what opinion polls had measured a few days before Obama's commanding victory in Iowa.

But that doesn't mean the Democratic primaries have settled back into the same mold as before. Though Clinton regained her status as a frontrunner for the nomination, her campaign has a whole new image--and at the forefront is the theme of "change," lifted directly from the Obama campaign.

The media focus on Clinton's "tearing up" at one appearance overshadowed everything else, but her campaign after the Iowa defeat set out to win back supporters, especially among women voters, with a retooled message.

Obama, meanwhile, got the expected "bounce" in poll support immediately following Iowa, and his campaign appearances in New Hampshire were packed with enthusiastic supporters. But he didn't build on the perception that he would wage a fight against the political status quo and instead continued to emphasize more vague appeals to "hope" and "inspiration."

The furious battle between Obama and Clinton for votes in New Hampshire and their running skirmishes since obscure an important fact--that the two frontrunners stand for almost exactly the same policies.

On Iraq, for example, both criticize Bush's war, but both have refused to call for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops--because both plan to maintain a U.S. military presence in Iraq and the region if they become president. On health care, there are disagreements about the details, but both have proposals that maintain the privileged position of private insurance and drug companies in the health care industry.

And however much they talk about standing up for ordinary Americans, both Clinton and Obama are beholden to a corporate elite that has contributed millions and millions of dollars to their campaigns. That's why both use the rhetoric of change, but propose little of substance to back it up.

The Obama campaign hopes it can regain momentum before the Super Tuesday primaries on February 5 by winning in South Carolina and the Nevada caucuses a week earlier. But the deeper question is: Will Obama's appeals for change continue to gain him support? Or will supporters look more closely at the conventional political positions--barely distinguishable in most cases from Clinton--he puts forward?

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