California Dreaming

California Dreaming

The Golden State’s lesson for Clinton and Obama is that they each need to craft a more daring politics of transcendence.


“I’ve got a little piece of California in me,” averred Barack Obama, staking a modest claim to what was rapidly emerging as the most precious piece of real estate in Super Tuesday’s primaries. The state’s First Lady was far more effusive in her assessment. “If Barack Obama was a state, he’d be California,” declared Maria Shriver in a fit of Kennedyesque munificence. “I mean, think about it: diverse, open, smart, independent, bucks tradition, innovative, inspiring, dreamer, leader.”

At the time, Shriver’s endorsement seemed prophetic, offered as it was at the ultimate “girl power” rally, headlined by Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama, aimed at Hillary Clinton’s most treasured constituency in the heart of what has long been considered–next to New York and Arkansas–her political backyard. With Ted Kennedy barnstorming across the state, wooing Latino voters in execrable Spanish, and a flurry of polls repeating the now-familiar election-eve pattern of surging Obama momentum, the Clinton “firewall” was beginning to look precarious. In the end, however, conventional wisdom and established strength triumphed at the ballot box. It was about women and Latino voters, after all, and they came out in large numbers on election day to award Hillary Clinton the state by a ten-point margin.

In many ways the California results marked the triumph of tribalism, with each constituency–blacks, Latinos, women, blue-collar workers, Asian-Americans, the young and the old–picking its side. But lost in the horse-race punditry, which thrives on slice-and-dice demographic calculations, are the darker implications of such herdlike behavior for both candidates.

According to the exit polls, women–55 percent of the primary voters–favored Clinton by a staggering 59 to 34 percent over Obama. Hillary’s estrogen base is undoubtedly an unqualified asset for her campaign. (No one, for example, worries that having so many women supporters makes her the “female candidate.”) But few are paying attention to the flip side of that gender equation. When it comes to gender gaps, the candidate who should be worried by the California results is Clinton, not Obama.

On the face of it, men seemed to split almost evenly between the two candidates, but the numbers (skewed by her across-the-board Latino support) disguise a disconnect with white men, who chose Obama by an astounding twenty-point margin. And California’s male pro-Obama tilt reflects a national 50-to-44 percent split in his favor.

This male gender gap isn’t new. “In particular, Hillary Clinton seems to turn off younger and moderate to conservative male Democrats. As many as one in five of them say there is no way they will support the former First Lady for the nomination,” wrote the Pew Research Center’s Andrew Kohut in his explanation for the strong pluralities of men who voted for Obama in Iowa and New Hampshire. This resistance, however, if it persists, bodes ill for Clinton’s future, especially in a general election, where women traditionally play a less decisive role. As Linda Hirshman recently pointed out in the New York Times, “With the possible exception of 1996, women have never voted a candidate into the White House when men thought the other guy should win. In the 2004 election, there was a gender gap in virtually every demographic–among old folks, married people, single people, squirrel hunters–but the gender gap still did not offset the robust men’s vote.”

Part of the reason is that men tend to lean Republican, unlike women, who make up an increasing share of the Democratic electorate. As Hirshman reveals, women also constitute a significant chunk of swing voters, with 62 percent of them identifying themselves as “purple or moderate.” But given Obama’s predominance among independents, there is as yet no evidence that Clinton will be able to attract enough female swing voters or Republicans in November to offset a male anti-Hillary bias. Women voters may be able to deliver her the Democratic nomination, but they won’t be able to carry her all the way to the White House. For better or worse, if Clinton is the first female presidential nominee, she will have to work harder to build a coalition that bridges the gender divide.

While California points to a potential testosterone gap for Clinton, it offers a cautionary tale about race for Obama. For all the excitement over his strong performance among white voters–helped immensely by his gains among white men–his strategy of “transcendence,” which may serve him well within a traditional black-white racial divide, may work to his detriment among other communities.

Take, for example, the Latino vote. After weeks of finger-pointing over white racism, California offered pundits the exotic delight of “ethnic” bigotry–the alleged Latino reluctance to vote for black leaders, a claim belied by the electoral success of African-American politicians, like former LA mayor Tom Bradley.

Obama had no such luck in California, where Latinos constituted an impressive 30 percent of the electorate and chose Clinton over Obama by an overwhelming margin of 67 to 32 percent, echoing the split in the Latino vote across all primaries on February 5. Obama’s performance was remarkably poor for a candidate who ran to the left of his opponent on immigration, supporting driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants even at the risk of alienating independents and moderates. For all the talk about his youth appeal and a supposed generational divide among Latinos, he earned a mere 32 percent in the 18-to-29 age group. And no one seems to have paid attention to his equally weak showing among California’s Asian-Americans (25 percent to Clinton’s 71 percent).

The truly transcendent candidate is not one who merely speaks to white fears of racial difference but who also expresses a multicultural vision of America in all its diversity. In the months to come, Obama’s advisers will rightly work on building his support among blue-collar white voters, a continuing weakness of his campaign in particular and the Democratic Party in general. But as long as Latinos and Asian-Americans appear to be an afterthought, simply demographic categories to be dealt with for electoral advantage, Obama will continue to have an unacknowledged “race problem” that has nothing to do with the color of his skin.

The message from the Golden State is the same for Clinton and Obama: they need, in different ways, to craft a more daring politics of transcendence if they want to bridge the divisions that are holding their candidacies back. It’s time to rediscover their inner California.

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