By MATT BAI
When old-time Democrats in Washington reminisce about the days of brokered conventions – floor fights and frantic early-morning calls, deals cut under the haze of cigar smoke – they talk about them the way a paleontologist might describe the hurtling stride of a velociraptor: an awesome spectacle, to be sure, but not one you would really want to see up close. Last week, Democrats woke up to find that the unthinkable may be upon them. There might still be an unforeseen turn in the titanic clash between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, but the way it looks now, the outcome will probably rest with the party’s nearly 800 superdelegates, many of whom will no doubt expect to be bribed and beseeched by both campaigns. If that’s the case, there is about as much chance of settling the issue before the convention as there is of, say, Obama waking up one morning and deciding that “hope” is kind of a dumb slogan after all.
You can already discern the outlines of the argument that Clinton will make to the superdelegates: The contest is basically a draw, and now it’s time to choose the candidate who can be elected. Sure, Barack’s won all those little states like North Dakota and Idaho, but what does that really get you? I’m the candidate who has won all the big states, and that’s what matters in November. In fact, Clinton has already declared that Democrats will never carry states like Idaho and Alaska, which sided with Obama – an argument that has to rankle Howard Dean, the party chairman, who has been pouring money into rural states as part of his “50-state strategy” for expanding the electoral map.
Clinton’s argument highlights the most vexing contrast of this Democratic campaign. Obama, fueled by overwhelming African-American support, has trounced Clinton in most big cities, while Clinton has pounded him in outlying areas. In Ohio, for instance, Obama won only the four largest urban areas in the state, while Clinton took 70 percent of the vote in smaller cities and towns; if you took only a passing glance at the electoral maps of states like Ohio, Missouri and Texas, you would think you were looking at one of those stark red-and-blue maps from recent general elections, with Obama cast as the Democrat and Clinton as the Republican. And yet, oddly, it is Obama who has emerged as the preferred candidate of sparsely populated rural states that are thought to be more conservative, and it is Clinton who has taken the larger, industrialized states. (Obama did carry his home state, Illinois, and neighboring Missouri, but he won the latter by only a single percentage point.) To put this simply, Obama wins in major urban areas but can’t seem to win in urbanized states, while Clinton wins in rural communities but consistently loses in rural states. Why?
One relevant fact, as many Clinton supporters have pointed out, is that rural states often hold caucuses rather than primaries, which require the kind of local organizing at which Obama’s team excels. It might also be that the economic downturn has had a more traumatic effect in bigger states, making the voters there responsive to Clinton’s more pragmatic message. It is also possible, however, that the disparity between Obama’s performance in urban primaries and rural caucuses tells us something larger – and counterintuitive – about race in America.
The assumption has always been that a black candidate should perform worse among white voters in states with less racial diversity because those voters are supposedly less enlightened. In fact, the reverse has been true for Obama: in the overwhelmingly white states of Wisconsin and Vermont, for instance, he carried 54 and 60 percent of the white voters respectively, according to exit polls, while in New Jersey he won 31 percent and in Tennessee he won 26 percent. As some bloggers have shrewdly pointed out, Obama does best in areas that have either a large concentration of African-American voters or hardly any at all, but he struggles in places where the population is decidedly mixed.
What this suggests, perhaps, is that living in close proximity to other races – sharing industries and schools and sports arenas – actually makes Americans less sanguine about racial harmony rather than more so. The growing counties an hour’s drive from Cleveland and St. Louis are filled with white voters whose parents fled the industrial cities of their youth before a wave of African-Americans and for whom social friction and economic competition, especially in an age of declining opportunity, are as much a part of daily life as traffic and mortgage payments. As Erica Goode wrote in these pages last year, Robert Putnam and other sociologists have, in fact, found that people living in more diverse areas evince less trust for others – no matter what their race. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that while white Democrats in rural states are apparently willing to accept the notion of a racially transcendent candidate, those living in the shadow of postindustrial atrophy seem to have a harder time detaching from enduring stereotypes, and they may be less optimistic that the country as a whole would actually elect a black candidate.
For Obama, no matter what social currents may be at play, the issue is hardly academic. At two critical junctures in the past six weeks, he has been on the precipice of securing the nomination only to fall frustratingly short in primaries in the most populous states. For this reason, the contest next month in Pennsylvania, the last of the big battleground states to hold a primary (aside from possible do-overs in Florida and Michigan), may carry a significance beyond the delegates themselves. There is no question that Obama could lose to Clinton in that state and still go on to give the acceptance speech in Denver. But this may also be his last chance to reassure his supporters – and maybe even himself – that he can break through whatever barriers have limited an otherwise stellar and historic campaign. Obama holds himself out as the candidate whose own life and lineage embody the nation’s new racial complexities. The question is whether he can win the sprawling states that embody them too.