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Race and the Democrats: The cooks spoil Obama's broth

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Race and the Democrats

The cooks spoil Obama's broth
Jan 24th 2008 | LAS VEGAS
From The Economist print edition

An ethnic split in the Democratic race hurts both leading candidates—perhaps to the advantage of Republicans come November

“I DON'T want us to get drawn into this notion that somehow this is going to be a race that splits along racial lines,” said Barack Obama in a debate on January 21st. Well, too bad. As the Nevada caucuses had showed two days earlier, and as South Carolina's primary election is likely to confirm, Democratic voters are already divided along racial lines. The real issue is who will suffer more from this divide, Mr Obama or his main rival, Hillary Clinton, and whether the split might end up costing their party the White House.

Mr Obama's candidacy at first seemed a post-racial triumph. While he rarely addressed the issue directly, he seemed to embody the hope that America could transcend its divisions. Iowa's lily-white electorate flocked to him joyfully. But Mr Obama's victory in the caucuses there provoked attacks by Mrs Clinton's allies, which some blacks interpreted (a touch tendentiously) as ethnic slights. Then, just as things were beginning to calm down, Nevada's Hispanics waded into the fray.

In a convention room above the New York-New York casino in Las Vegas, a strong ethnic pattern became apparent as soon as the caucus opened. Defying their union, which had endorsed Mr Obama, a procession of Hispanic maids and short-order cooks headed to Hillary Clinton's corner. Thanks largely to them, she won that caucus by 95 votes to 70 and went on to take seven out of nine contests on the Las Vegas strip. A CNN poll suggests the pattern was repeated across the state. Latinos, who made up 15% of caucus-goers, gave Mrs Clinton a 38-point lead. Blacks favoured Mr Obama by 69 points.

Few expected that so many Latinos would turn out, or that they would plump so heavily for Mrs Clinton. Fearing the might of the Culinary Workers Union, which represents casino and hotel staff, her allies had launched a legal challenge to the very caucuses she ended up winning. One reason the workers broke ranks, said Luis Rueda, a casino porter and shop steward who voted for Mrs Clinton, is that union leaders seemed to decide the endorsement without consulting their members.

Hispanic voters are drawn to Mrs Clinton for many of the same reasons others are: they remember the 1990s fondly and warm to her message of hard work and responsibility. Many also admire her for holding together a family that includes a philandering husband. Yet cruder notions may have influenced some. It would not be the first time that Hispanic voters had been put off by a rival candidate's race.

Because so many of them are young or illegal, Hispanics have much less power than their numbers would suggest. It was not until 2005 that Los Angeles, then almost half Latino, elected a Hispanic mayor. This is vexing enough. What sharpens Latino resentment and gives it a racial edge is that many live in areas where blacks hold power. In California's 37th congressional district, for example, which includes parts of south-central Los Angeles, Latinos outnumber blacks almost two to one. Yet black politicians invariably carry the area. Last year, in a special election, a Latina stood against two African-American candidates. If the black vote had split, she might have won. It did not, thanks in part to pleas for unity from black leaders, who made it clear that they did not want the seat to change colour.

Such slights are not soon forgotten, and may be returned in kind. In 2001 almost three-quarters of Houston's Hispanic voters rejected a black Democratic candidate for mayor in favour of a blue-eyed, conservative Republican who happened to be Cuban. When Latinos do wield power over blacks, as in Miami and the southern California city of Lynwood, they often do so unapologetically. After all, they feel no responsibility for slavery and segregation, or their lingering effects. Mr Obama has pointed out that Hispanics voted for him in Illinois. He fails to mention that his opponent in the 2004 Senate race was Alan Keyes, who is not only black but also claimed to be more so than Mr Obama.

The senator from Illinois has at once the most to gain and the most to lose from a racially divided electorate. If they had to choose, Democratic candidates would probably pick the black vote over the Latino one: it is bigger and more partisan. But the real prize is not the black vote or the Latino vote but the white vote. A fractious contest threatens to turn Mr Obama from a post-racial into a racial candidate. Small wonder that, in this week's debate, he strove to avoid discussing race, preferring to talk about “low-income people” and the need to “bring the country together”.

There were signs in Nevada that some damage may already have been done. Mr Obama was soundly beaten in Henderson, a mostly white, middle-class suburb of Las Vegas. (It helped that Mrs Clinton hammered the issue of home foreclosures, a big problem locally, during a well-attended rally in the city.) The next challenge is South Carolina, where blacks make up about half of the Democratic electorate. To its discredit, Mrs Clinton's campaign has already put it about that black voters are likely to tip the state to Mr Obama. An impressive victory would thus be spun as a simple matter of ethnic allegiance.

This is a very dangerous game. In nine months the entire country will go to the polls. Without black voters, the Democrats would struggle to win in the Midwest and could not compete in the South. Without Latinos, their dreams of seizing western states like Colorado and Nevada would be much less likely to come true. The risk for the eventual nominee, whether Mrs Clinton or Mr Obama, is that an alienated group might tend to stay at home in November—or, worse, send a bundle of votes to a centrist Republican xenophile like John McCain. If that happens, the White House could be lost.
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