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Clinton, Obama, and the Racial Divide


It has now become conventional wisdom that Barack Obama has weathered the storm over Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  Exhibit A in the discussion is last week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, which, it is said, shows that Hillary Clinton suffered more than Obama from the Wright controversy. “With all the noise of the last couple of weeks, Sen. Clinton is the one who has been hurt the most,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said recently.  “Meanwhile, Sen. Obama has steadily risen.”  Most analysts on the Sunday shows seemed to agree.

The key numbers in the poll are the results of the question in which registered voters were asked whether they have a positive, neutral, or negative opinion of Clinton and Obama.  Clinton’s positive number among all voters is 37 percent, down from 45 percent a couple of weeks ago.  Her negative number is 48 percent, up from 43 percent.  And her neutral number is 15 percent, up from 11 percent.  Obama’s positive rating among all voters is 49, down from 51 two weeks ago.  His negative rating is 32, up from 28, and his neutral rating is 18, unchanged.

But a closer look at the numbers shows that the change in Clinton’s position relative to Obama’s has been entirely among black voters — and it’s pretty clear by now that Hillary Clinton is not trying to appeal to black voters.   

In the new NBC/WSJ poll, Clinton’s positive rating among whites is 34 percent — down five points from a couple of weeks ago.  Obama’s positive rating among whites is 42 percent, which is also down five points from a couple of weeks ago.  So there’s no net change in the relationship between Clinton and Obama on that score.  But Clinton’s positive rating among blacks is 51 percent, down from 63 percent a couple of weeks ago — a fall of 12 points.  Obama’s positive rating among blacks is 82 percent, unchanged from the last poll.

So — they’re both down five percent among whites, but Clinton is down 12 points among blacks, while Obama is unchanged.  Thus, Clinton’s overall positive rating is down more than Obama’s.  What does that say?  It says what has been clear for a while now.  The Democratic race is heavily racialized, and is perhaps becoming more so. Party leaders and pundits may be uncomfortable with that fact, but it’s a fact nonetheless.  

Black Democrats are voting largely along racial lines.  With few policy differences between the candidates, Obama won 92 percent of the black vote in Mississippi, 91 percent in Wisconsin, 87 percent in Ohio, 84 percent in Maryland, and 84 percent in Texas.  White Democrats are voting significantly less along racial lines, but there are still divisions.  Clinton won 70 percent of the white vote in Mississippi, 66 percent in New Jersey, 64 percent in Ohio, 55 percent in Texas, and 52 percent in Maryland.  (Obama won among whites in Wisconsin, 55-45.)

In Mississippi, 31 percent of voters in the Democratic primary said race was an important factor in their decision. Of those, 62 percent voted for Obama.  In Ohio, 20 percent said race was an important factor.  Of those, 59 percent voted for Clinton.  And those are just the people who actually admitted, to an exit pollster, that race was an important factor to them.  The real numbers are probably higher, both blacks in Mississippi for Obama and whites in Ohio for Clinton.

There seems to be no chance Clinton can win more black votes against Obama, so her only hope is to encourage more whites to vote along racial lines. No one in the campaign would ever say such a thing — they certainly haven’t to me — but what white voters do in Pennsylvania on April 22 will be a critical indicator of where Clinton’s campaign is going. Will they vote like whites in Mississippi, New Jersey, and Ohio?  And if she wins big in Pennsylvania, then what white voters do in Indiana and North Carolina will be another huge indicator.

Is there anything we can tell now?  Not much.  According to that NBC/WSJ poll, Clinton’s lead among white Democrats has actually slipped slightly, to 49-41, down from 51-39 a couple of weeks ago. Certainly that’s within the margin of error.  But I wonder about those numbers.  In the poll’s results for black Democrats, Obama leads 68-17, with 14 percent undecided.  Doesn’t 68 percent seem a bit low, given the results we have seen in the primaries so far?  So I don’t know how reliable it is. I think like everything else involving race in this campaign, it’s hard to be sure of what is what.

In any event, when all of those numbers are combined into an overall horserace figure, admittedly an unpopular figure among political analysts, Clinton and Obama are dead even, 45-45.  And people wonder why she is resisting demands that she quit the race.


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