Why Clinton Won Texas, And What That Means Going Forward

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

Hillary, the Virgin and Saint Ann. Is this a Renaissance altarpiece in a Catholic Church? No, this is a distillation of the Clinton win in Texas. Forget all that chatter about Clinton's appearances on SNL and Jon Stewart, about NAFTA-gate and the red phone. These were peripheral, at best, to Hillary Clinton's capturing the popular vote in Texas. The fact is that Hispanic women and white women in Texas adore Hillary Clinton.

For Tejanas, especially the older and less-educated, Hillary is theirs. Just like the Virgin of Guadalupe, she belongs to them. A woman who has suffered anguish and humiliation, who has paid a price, becomes the intercessor for the sufferings of others. Mexican-American women are drawn to just such an iconic figure. They would have believed in Hillary even if she had never come down to Texas and visited them in person. But she did, over and over again, and in so doing sealed them to her. By the time I arrived in Texas three weeks before the primary, Hispanic women had closed their ears to campaign talk; they weren't willing to listen to anything Obama or even politics-related, as if they were afraid the devil might tempt them away from true belief. For the record, I never found Hispanic men to be quite so fervent in commitment as unwilling to undergo domestic discord over a matter of mere faith.

Hillary Clinton sacrificed Wisconsin in order to travel among her Hispanic base in South Texas. She worked all Texas hard, making in the end three times more campaign stops across the state than Barack Obama. The way she rode this section of the campaign trail paid off; she not only won the popular vote in Texas but also bought her campaign some time. It will be interesting to see if the Mexican-Americans who, for the first time in Texas, came out to vote in great numbers will return in November. It will be difficult to recapture the momentum of this spring. Not that these women will be any less loyal. The irony here is that, for all Clinton's policy promises, Tejanas don't expect much. They are realists in that way; they are also believers for whom the point of devotion is not immediate reward.

Standing in line to get into a Houston rally, a group of thirtysomething Tejanas tried to explain to me their dedication to Hillary. "I grew up in South Texas," Ginger, a physical therapist, said, "and I always felt growing up like I was second-class. But now I'm volunteering and involved, and I realize it's not--for the first time I know it's not true." Hillary Clinton has made Tejanas feel important and connected to the rest of the American body politic. Their contribution this March has meant something; therefore, they count for something. This powerful bond with Hillary, whom older Tejanas speak of in Marian language, and younger Tejanas as if she were a cult goddess, will be difficult to break.

White Texas women, on the other hand, see Hillary Clinton as another Ann Richards. Texans have always admired bold, brassy, ballsy, big-mouthed women like the former governor. Ann Richards's departure from this life left a cultural vacuum in Texas that temporarily Hillary Clinton filled and played to her advantage. In fact, there was a bit of a Texas dust-up when Clinton's surrogates, introducing her at rallies, insinuated that Hillary had Ann's endorsement. Even when one of Richards's children asked the Clinton Campaign to stop invoking his mother's name, pointing out that Richards could hardly return from the grave to pick and choose between candidates, nevertheless Clinton's people persisted.

Texan love for Ann Richards, and by association Hillary Clinton, helps to pinpoint the place where Barack Obama took a wrong turn in Texas. When Clinton hit him hard the week before the primary, he should have hit her back harder. That's what Texans wanted to see: did he have it in him, did he relish the fight, could he stomach the gore? Not surprisingly, the fence-sitters concluded that Obama did not have the balls. Clinton's 3 AM red phone ad brought an Obama counterpunch in the form of an ad that the media admired for its wit, its graceful turnabout and the speed of its delivery. But it was too fey and subtle for Texas. Furthermore, both ads were so similar and played so often that they merged in the mind, where, of course, the stronger version prevailed. What the Obama Campaign should have shot forth is an ad where Obama sits behind a massive desk and speaks to the viewer with devastating humor about Clinton's padded resume on foreign policy experience. All the observations that the Obama Campaign has been taking to the press--that Clinton did not broker the peace in Northern Ireland, that she arrived in Macedonia a day after the borders opened, that she traveled to Kosovo with Sinbad and Sheryl Crow--should have been directed straight to the Texas voter.

Similarly, Obama should have thrown Austan Goolsbee overboard with the warning that, in an Obama administration, anybody who speaks similarly without his consent will get the same treatment. Last week in Texas, Obama fell prey to the delusion that plagued Clinton for so long--the delusion that leadership begins in some hypothetical future White House--when in fact the tests of leadership are taking place right now on the campaign trail. Yes, it's hard to fire an advisor and to bloody an opponent, but both actions will be part of the burden of the presidency. These are the responsibilities that you two crazy people, Senators Clinton and Obama, are fighting to seize so that we sane Americans can sleep with lighter consciences.

In the end, the Clinton-Obama dynamic in Texas played out much as it did in Nevada. With Hispanics in his opponent's camp, Obama had to have a terrific week in the ascendant before voting day in order to win. But in both states he had a bad week before the big day. Significantly, however, not only did Obama likely win the majority of the delegates in both states but also, considering that he was coming from a twenty-point deficit before reaching parity with Clinton and then losing ground, he managed to keep over three-fourths of those twenty points even as he sank for the actual vote.

Looking ahead, both the mainstream media and the Clinton Campaign have been comparing Pennsylvania to Ohio and concluding that the April 22 primary will be an uphill battle for Obama. But Texas is a warning for Clinton in Pennsylvania. There are no large populations of Hispanics or a pair of Ann Richards boots to fill in the Quaker State. Just as she garnered Texas votes by visiting one small town and city after another, so now Obama will have the time and opportunity to do the same in Pennsylvania. This is how Obama won Iowa, by introducing himself to voters in town hall meetings and taking question after question. A myth that has encircled and begun to choke the Obama Campaign is that Barack Obama always delivers knock-out speeches. Having heard him many many times now, I can tell you that this is not true. Barack Obama has given three great speeches: the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa, his victory speech in Iowa and his victory speech in South Carolina. Most of the time he aims high but doesn't quite reach. Where he closes the deal with voters is in his personal interactions with them, through these question-and-answer back-and-forths.

There's no reason, therefore, that Hillary Clinton should have an advantage with rural voters in Pennsylvania. Obama won the rural vote in Nevada. He did well in economically-depressed places like Newton, Iowa. The wild card in Pennsylvania is racism. In Texas, racism was definitely at play, always just under the surface and sometimes overtly. At one campaign event, I chatted with a reporter from Port Arthur and only gradually realized that she is a racist. In talking with dozens of working class Texans, I found few who were open to the idea of a black man as President. As a Southerner, I am pained to have to report that Texas as a whole has come only so far.

Other elements of the Texas campaigns predictive of Pennsylvania are newspaper endorsements, surrogates and money. The first count for nothing (Obama had all the major newspapers in Texas, just as he did in California), the second count for little (Kennedys, anyone?--but also popular governors) and the third counts for less than one might think. It's all about getting a base and holding onto those first-to-commit voters even while riding the ascending and descending currents that lead away from the base right before primary.