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Ethnic, Race, Male-Female Voting Patterns Deciding The Democratic Nomination

First Posted: 03/28/08 03:45 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 01:20 PM ET

Mlk Voting

Looking at the recent male-female and white-black-Latino voting patters in Nevada, and recent survey results from South Carolina voters, it is now likely that the Democratic contest for the presidential nomination will become a hard-fought competition not only between generations, but also between politically mobilized racial and ethnic groups, as well as a battle between the sexes. The percentage of each primary electorate that is female, African American or Latino will be especially crucial to the outcome.

"The worry for the Democrats, I think, is a battle to the end that appears to the inattentive median voter as over identity politics," said Columbia University political scientist Robert Erikson. "Obama could face a danger of appearing as the 'black' candidate or Hillary as the 'women's' candidate."

Matt Dowd, a renegade Democrat-turned-Republican pollster (who was a senior strategist for both of George W. Bush's campaigns), put it succinctly: "Share of vote by groups is crucial now."

In the initial contest, the January 3 Iowa caucuses, race and gender divisions were masked when Obama won among the overwhelmingly white and non-Hispanic, very liberal Democratic caucus electorate - an electorate with a larger than average number of young people.

The outcome there raised expectations that the role of identity politics in the 2008 nomination fight would be muted, and that the election might be "color blind," despite the fact that the two front-runners are a black man and a white woman.

In virtually all-white New Hampshire, the election was in fact color-blind, but gender surfaced for the first time as a determinative factor. Clinton, who had lost among women in Iowa, won their vote in the Granite State by a 46-34 margin, while men backed Obama 40-29 - a striking 23-point gender gap, according to exit poll data. Women made up 57 percent of all New Hampshire voters, so the differences in male and female voting worked decisively in Clinton's favor.

Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard University political scientist and the author of Bowling Alone, noted that in New Hampshire the differences in male and female support for Clinton and Obama combined with the generation gap in complex ways - and may continue to do so in future contests:

"The Democratic race seems to pit boomer women against their own sons and daughters. Both anecdotally and in the data, there is a very big gender gap among boomers, with boomer women responding very strongly and viscerally in support of Hillary, but there is not nearly such a big gender gap among the under 30s, who favor Obama. I think those two candidacies resonate in a very deep way with each of those two groups."

Putnam said this finding, which he spotted in the New Hampshire exit poll data, runs parallel to a trend he found in the course of exploring attitudes toward abortion:

"The most firmly pro-choice demographic group in the population are boomer women [born between 1946 and 1964] and the least firmly pro-choice demographic group are women under 30 [born after 1978].... I'm convinced that to look at the Democratic contest solely in terms of race vs. gender is to miss the more important generational cleavage."

Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist, similarly noted the importance of "the generational divide which has been very large in the Democratic primaries." In addition, he warned, "Obama can't win if this becomes a contest about race and gender so he needs to try to expand his appeal among more traditional Democrats, women, Latinos, etc."

The entrance polls in Nevada showed in more detail how three of these factors - race, sex and ethnicity - are in play.

Women were an even larger share of the Nevada Democratic electorate than in New Hampshire, 59 percent, and Clinton carried them 51 percent to Obama's 38 percent. Men backed Obama by a slight margin of 45 to 43.

Nevada added two new additional ingredients to the contest: substantial African American and Latino constituencies, each of which made up 15 percent of Democratic caucus goers.

African Americans backed Obama over Clinton in Nevada by an extraordinary 7 to 1 -- 83 percent to 14 percent. The black vote in the Silver State caucus dealt a blow to the Clinton campaign, which had calculated that she would lose among blacks, but that the margin would be far smaller.

In a development signaling internal tension between two minority communities crucial to the Democratic Party, Latino voters went in the opposite direction from African Americans. Latinos backed Clinton by better than 2 to 1, 64-26, despite the endorsement of Obama by leaders of the heavily Hispanic Culinary Workers Union and by SEIU locals.

Sergio Bendixen, a Clinton pollster who specializes in Latino voting patterns, told Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker that "the Hispanic vote is extremely important to the Clinton campaign." He then added - fully aware of how controversial his comment could become - "The Hispanic voter - and I want to say this very carefully - has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates."

White Democrats in Nevada backed Clinton by a solid 52-34 margin.

These trends all point to a Democratic electorate dividing along black-white, male-female, black-Latino and generational lines - a trend that polls here in South Carolina suggest will continue, and perhaps grow stronger, in the January 26 primary.

Here in Columbia, South Carolina the most recent polls show a significant racial divide. Among white Democrats, according to a SurveyUSA poll, Clinton gets 50 percent, John Edwards 26, and Obama 22. Conversely, among African American Democrats, Obama leads with 74 percent, to Clinton's 20 and Edwards 3.

David C. Leege, a Notre Dame University political scientist, noted:

"The Clintons have always been skillful at playing the race and gender cards. While African-Americans resonated to him, Bill Clinton still made that campaign attack on Sister Souljah in 1992, and his numbers among working class white males zoomed up. Last week Hillary Rodham reminded us that Obama is an African-American -- I think the [Bob] Johnson thing was originally just a little slip but she quickly learned how to play it for her advantage -- and she will show increasing gains among those 'unprejudiced' folks who say racism is a thing of the past in this country, but who, deep down, cannot believe that a black male is qualified to be president (they use drugs, you know; they don't trust whitey) or else worry about his electability because they suspect the electorate in general is as prejudiced as they are.

"As time wears on, she will also hone women's support, but cautiously, because she can ill afford any more loss of males in the general election. She has to remain tender and vulnerable on matters of love, and cannot be perceived as beyond the affections of a man. In general, I would look for Republican front organizations to use her youthful commencement speech at Wellesley in negative ways. She must remind voters by her adult behavior that she is not a castrating feminist, which I don't think she is. . . . competitive, yes, but not castrating."

Looking at racial tensions from a different vantage point, Columbia political scientist Frederick Harris, author of It Takes a Tragedy to Arouse Them: Collective Memory and Collective Action during the Civil Rights Movement, noted that:

"From my perspective an obvious story would be how race operates in the two primaries in South Carolina. On the Republican side, visits to Bob Jones and references to the Confederate Flag are interesting. On the Democratic side, the injection of 'race' in the campaign between Obama and Clinton is interesting since the three 'race' issues that have been a disadvantage to Democrats--crime, welfare, and affirmative action--are no longer a problem for the party."