In the days leading up to Pennsylvania’s primary, white males — those knuckle-dragging, chaw-chompin’, beer-swillin’ bitter troglodytes — were suddenly the debutante’s delight.
How were the Democrats to woo these crucial swing voters, known in other circles as the Republican-party base?
Political commentators’ brains grew new crevices as they pondered the imponderable: Would white males go for the woman or the black? Or as Nora Ephron more pointedly posed the question: Whom do white men hate more — women or blacks?
By Ephron’s calculus, if a white male votes for a black man, it couldn’t possibly be because he finds the man a more suitable candidate. He simply hates women more.
And if he votes for the woman, he’s probably got his nutty uncle’s white-sheet ensemble stashed upstairs in an attic trunk just in case cross burning enjoys a revival. He couldn’t possibly deem any woman superior to any man. He simply hates blacks more.
Are all white males really so monolithically repugnant and predictable?
Race and gender do matter, of course. They enter into the human equations to varying degrees, subconsciously if not consciously, in any transaction. We have certain expectations and are all guilty of stereotyping, much as we insist otherwise. It’s nature, and it’s not always wrong.
To what extent race and gender matter in elections, we’re only now beginning to find out. A year ago, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that voters were less concerned about race and gender than they were about age. While 58 percent said they’d be less likely to vote for a candidate older than 72, only 13 percent said they’d be less likely to support a woman, and just 6 percent felt less inclined to vote for a black candidate.
In Pennsylvania on Tuesday, exit polls found 19 percent of Democrats saying that the race of a candidate played a role in their vote. But what does that mean? That it matters a little or a lot — or that race is a deal-breaker?
Clinton beat Obama by a 10-point margin in part because of WECM — white ethnic Catholic men.
Pollster John Zogby says that WECM, who tend to be conservative, weren’t sure they were going to vote at all. And though they didn’t particularly like Clinton, they weren’t going to vote for Obama.
Are ethnic Catholics necessarily racist? Or were they responding to something else when they voted against Obama? Perhaps his more liberal voting record? Or, just possibly, recent comments that were perceived as insulting and out of touch?
In fact, the groups that favored Clinton over Obama included people 45 and over, working-class and union folks, as well as voters in the suburbs, small towns and in rural areas — those embittered Americans Obama recently described as clinging to their guns and religion out of frustration. Also among those Obama lost to Clinton were weekly churchgoers and, yes, gun owners — by 63 percent to 37 percent.
So, yes, some percentage of Americans (or Turks or Greeks or Swedes) will always take race and gender into consideration at the polls. But Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may not provide a clear picture as to how those issues play out in politics. Each brings too many confounding factors that distort the picture.
Clinton isn’t just any woman, needless to say. People like and dislike her often for the same reason — because she’s the wife of Bill. In either case, it’s not only that she’s A Woman, but that she’s That Particular Woman.
And Obama isn’t just any black man. Those who like or dislike him don’t necessarily base those opinions on his skin color or ethnic heritage, except to the extent that they are tied to differences that are also cultural.
Clinton may not be Everywoman, no matter how unflinchingly she downs a tumbler of Crown Royal. But she is a more familiar entity than someone like Obama, who, having grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia, doesn’t share the life experiences of the groups that voted against him on Tuesday.
Do they “hate” blacks, as the Ephron School insists? Or do they prefer a familiar individual who sees the world essentially as they do? Are white males misogynistic and racist? Or are they weary of being the only group in America that is fair game for contempt, insult, and blame?
Bottom line: It’s hard to woo people you don’t really love.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group