The Clinton Firewall

The New York Senator’s last-ditch efforts to win the Democratic nomination could rely on the “Race Chasm” and the trampling of democracy.

David Sirota

<a href="/images/32/05/racegraph.gif" class="thickbox">Click to zoom.</a>

Google the phrase Clinton firewall” and you will come up with an ever-lengthening list of scenarios that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has said will stop Barack Obama’s candidacy. The New Hampshire primary, said her campaign, would be the firewall to end Obamamania. Then Super Tuesday was supposed to be the firewall. Then Texas. Now Pennsylvania and Indiana.

For four months, the political world has been hypnotized by this string-along game, not bothering to ask what this Clinton tactic really is. The just wait until the next states” mantra has diverted our attention from the firewall’s grounding in race and democracy. But now, with only a few months until the Democratic National Convention in Denver, the firewall’s true composition is coming into focus. Whether Obama can overcome this barrier will likely decide who becomes the Democrats’ presidential nominee.

The Race Chasm

Since at least the South Carolina primary, the Clinton campaign’s message has been stripped of its poll-tested nuance and become a rather crass drumbeat aimed at reminding voters that Obama is black. Whether it is former President Clinton likening Obama’s campaign to Jesse Jackson’s; Clinton aides telling the Associated Press that Obama is the black candidate,” or Geraldine Ferraro tapping into anti-affirmative action anger by claiming Obama’s success is a product of his skin color, barely a week goes by without a white Clinton surrogate injecting race into the nominating contest. 

That is one of the twin pillars of the Clinton firewall – a well-honed strategy aimed at maximizing the Race Chasm.” The Race Chasm may sound like a conventional discussion of the black-white divide, but it is one of the least-discussed geographic, demographic and political dynamics driving the contest between Clinton and Obama. I call it the Race Chasm because of what it looks like on a graph. Here’s how it works.

To date, 42 states and the District of Columbia have voted in primaries or caucuses. Factor out the two senators’ home states (Illinois, New York and Arkansas), the two states where Edwards was a major factor (New Hampshire and Iowa) and the one state where only Clinton was on the ballot (Michigan) and you are left with 37 elections where the head-to-head Clinton-Obama matchup has been most clear. Subtract the Latino factor (a hugely important but wholly separate influence on the election) by removing the four states whose Hispanic population is over 25 percent (California, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona), and you are left with 33 elections that best represent how the black-white split has impacted the campaign.

As the Race Chasm graph shows, when you chart Obama’s margin of victory or defeat against the percentage of African-Americans living in that state, a striking U trend emerges. That precipitous dip in Obama’s performance in states with a big-but-not-huge African-American population is the Race Chasm – and that chasm is no coincidence. 

On the left of the graph, among the states with the smallest black population, Obama has destroyed Clinton. With the candidates differing little on issues, this trend is likely due, in part, to the fact that black-white racial politics are all but non-existent in nearly totally white states. Thus, Clinton has fewer built-in advantages. Though some of these states like Idaho or Wyoming have reputations for intolerance thanks to the occasional militia headlines, black-white interaction in these places is not a part of people’s daily lives, nor their political decisions. Put another way, the dialect of racism – the hints of the Ferraro comment and codes of Bill Clinton’s Jesse Jackson reference, for instance – is not politically effective because such language has not historically been a significant part of the local political discussion. That’s especially true in the liberal-skewed Democratic primary.

On the right of the graph among the states with the largest black populations, Obama has also crushed Clinton. Unlike the super-white states, these states – many in the Deep South – have a long and sordid history of day-to-day, black-white racial politics, with Richard Nixon famously pioneering Republican’s southern strategy” to maximize the racist segregationist vote in general elections. But in the Democratic primary the black vote is so huge [in these states], it can overwhelm the white vote,” says Thomas Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland – Baltimore. That black vote has gone primarily to Obama, helping him win these states by big margins.

It is in the chasm where Clinton has consistently defeated Obama. These are geographically diverse states from Ohio to Oklahoma to Massachusetts where racial politics is very much a part of the political culture, but where the black vote is too small to offset a white vote racially motivated by the Clinton campaign’s coded messages and tactics. The chasm exists in the cluster of states whose population is above 6 percent and below 17 percent black, and Clinton has won most of them by beating Obama handily among white working-class voters. 

In sum, Obama has only been able to eke out victories in three states with Race Chasm demographics, where African-American populations make up more than 6 percent but less than 17 percent of the total population. And those three states provided him extra advantages: He won Illinois, his home state; Missouri, an Illinois border state; and Connecticut, a state whose Democratic electorate just two years before supported Ned Lamont’s insurgent candidacy against Joe Lieberman, and therefore had uniquely developed infrastructure and political cultures inclined to support an outsider candidacy. Meanwhile, three-quarters of all the states Clinton has won are those with Race Chasm demographics. 

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), a Clinton supporter, publicly acknowledged this dynamic in February. He suggested to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board that Obama’s ethnicity could prevent him from winning the state, which, at 10.6 percent black, falls squarely in the Race Chasm. 

You’ve got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate,” Rendell said.

That was echoed by Obama supporter David K. Levdansky, a state representative from western Pennsylvania. For all our wanting to believe that race is less of an issue than ever before, the reality of racism still exists,” he told the New York Times. It’s not that [Pennsylvanians] don’t think he’s qualified, but some people fear that it might be empowering the black community by electing Obama.”

Primaries are now looming in a critical group of Race Chasm states – Pennsylvania, Indiana (8.8 percent black), Kentucky (7.5 percent black) and West Virginia (only 3 percent black, but a place influenced by the Ohio, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania media markets, which undoubtedly makes race politics more customary than in other mostly white states). 

Clinton, knowing the Race Chasm can fortify her firewall, has subsequently intensified her efforts to put race front and center in the campaign, most recently attacking Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor who has delivered fiery speeches indicting white racism. She is so determined to raise race issues in advance of these Race Chasm contests that she gave an in-person interview to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review specifically to criticize Wright. For reference, the Tribune-Review is a conservative newspaper in western Pennsylvania owned by the same Richard Mellon Scaife who funded the anti-Clinton witchhunts of the 90s.

Clearly, each primary and caucus contest has its own unique politics, and race is not the only factor moving votes. Despite the oversimplified punditry that comes with presidential campaigns, demographic groups – white, black or any other – do not vote as monoliths. That said, a phenomenon as stark as the Race Chasm over 33 elections is obviously affecting the campaign – particularly considering the regional and red-blue diversity of each state cluster on the graph. 

When the black population is really small, racial polarization is small enough that Obama can win, and when the black population is large, any polarization is drowned out by the overwhelming size of the Democratic black vote,” says Schaller, who recently authored the book Whistling Past Dixie analyzing demographic voting trends. But in the middle range, polarization is sizeable enough that black voters cannot overcome it, and these are the states where she wins.”

The Superdelegates 

Clinton has two reasons to try to highlight race and maximize the Race Chasm, both related to the second pillar of her firewall: the superdelegates. These are the senators, congress people, governors and party officials who control roughly 40 percent of the Democratic National Convention votes needed to secure the nomination. 

First and most obvious, she wants to win as many of the remaining states as possible to keep her tally of pledged” delegates (i.e., delegates won in primaries and caucuses) as large as possible. The Politi​co​.com correctly reported in March that Clinton has virtually no chance of winning” the race for pledged delegates. But winning some remaining states and keeping the count close will make it easier for her to argue the race was almost a tie, and thus theoretically easier to convince superdelegates to throw their support to her, even if she loses the popular vote and the pledged delegate count. 

Clinton, in fact, is already making the argument that she is only narrowly behind. We’re separated by, you know, a little more than a hundred delegates,” she told Time, not bothering to note that a hundred delegates is more than the entire delegate count from major states like Missouri or Wisconsin.

Additionally, in trying to maximize the Race Chasm by focusing on race-tinged issues, Clinton is tacitly making an electability” argument to superdelegates. (This is not a stupid strategy in courting officials who are all, in one way or another, election-focused political operatives.) Part of that electability” argument hinges on portraying Obama as unelectable” – and what better way to do that than stoke as many race-focused controversies as possible? It is a standard primary tactic: Launch a line of attack – in this case, the Wright controversy” – and then claim the attack will be used by Republicans to defeat an opponent – in this case Obama – should he become the general election candidate. Of course, it doesn’t hurt Clinton’s cause that, close to half of the superdelegates are white, according to The Politico.

Ruthless, but probably useless

As ugly as it is, the Clinton firewall strategy is stunning in its ruthlessness. It has been half a century since the major triumphs of the civil rights and party reform movements, yet a major Democratic candidate is attempting to secure a presidential nomination by exploiting racial divides and negotiating backroom superdelegate deals. 

But success is not likely. 

Even if Clinton wins big in the remaining Race Chasm states, Obama has advantages in Montana, Oregon, North Carolina and South Dakota – smaller states, to be sure, but likely enough pledged delegates to keep a significant lead. Clinton, therefore, would have a difficult time convincing superdelegates to go against the will of the people in their states.

That leaves the electability” argument with the superdelegates – and the problem for Clinton there is that polls show Obama is at least as electable” as Clinton, if not more so.

A state-by-state SurveyUSA poll in March found both Obama and Clinton defeating Republican nominee John McCain in a hypothetical general election matchup – and Obama actually getting four more Electoral College votes than Clinton. In Colorado, a key swing state, a March Rasmussen Reports poll found Obama tying McCain, but McCain clobbering Clinton by 14 percentage points. A February Rasmussen poll reported a similar phenomenon in Pennsylvania, with McCain beating Clinton by two points, but Obama beating McCain by 10.

And then there is the Pew poll taken immediately after the major wave of media surrounding the Wright controversy. The survey showed both Obama and Clinton defeating McCain, but more significantly, Obama actually performing slightly better among white voters than Clinton – a blow to those Clinton backers hoping that superdelegates may begin to fear a white voter backlash against the Illinois senator.

If her turn to more hardball tactics is any indication, Clinton may be trying to preempt the firewall strategy’s failure. In two bold moves at the end of March, her campaign launched a two-pronged initiative to intimidate Democratic leaders and to strongarm pledged delegates who are already committed to Obama through primaries and caucuses.

First, the Clinton campaign organized 20 major Democratic Party financiers to release a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi upbraiding her for appearing on ABC News and saying, If the votes of the superdelegates overturn what happened in the elections, it would be harmful to the Democratic Party.” According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the contributors who signed the letter have given a combined $23.6 million to Democrats since 1999. These mega-donors, clearly wielding their financial heft as an implied threat, claimed that Pelosi had taken an untenable position” by merely suggesting superdelegates should avoid overturning the results of democratic primaries and caucuses.

At the same time, Clinton told Time that technically, even pledged delegates who are supposed to represent the will of voters are permitted to change their vote at the Democratic National Convention. Every delegate with very few exceptions is free to make up his or her mind however they choose,” she said, introducing the possibility of a new, more brass-knuckled kind of delegate campaign. We talk a lot about so-called pledged delegates, but every delegate is expected to exercise independent judgment.”

A late March NBC News poll reports that if a candidate loses among delegates selected by voters but still wins the nomination,” a plurality (41 percent) of Democratic voters believe that candidate would be not legitimate.” Many of those surveyed probably remember both the recent episodes of stolen elections, and the past eras of brokered conventions and corrupt, often racist political machines stuffing ballot boxes.

The latter, in fact, was precisely how the epithet Democrat Party” – as opposed to Democratic Party” – was coined. As the language-obsessed William Safire documented 24 years ago in a New York Times column, the term Democrat Party” was created by Republican leaders in the mid-20th century to imply that their opponents – many bigoted segregationists and machine pols – were, in fact, undemocratic. 

After the Florida and Ohio debacles in the 2000 and 2004 election, Republican lamentations about democracy are, of course, absurd. Additionally, many machines have long ago decayed … except for the one inside the Democratic Party itself – the Clinton machine. If that machine’s firewall strategy continues to exploit the Race Chasm and threaten to trample the will of voters, Clinton will be asking the Democratic Party, one that has come to champion racial tolerance and democracy, to truly become the Democrat Party – one that ignores those ideals in favor of a single Democrat. 

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David Sirota is an awardwinning investigative journalist and an In These Times senior editor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign. Follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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