Hillary Clinton’s long shot quest for the White House received a significant boost last night as she took the Pennsylvania primary, in a fashion that might raise the very questions she hopes Democratic party superdelegates will raise when deciding who they will support for the nomination.
Despite Barack Obama’s virtually insurmountable lead in pledged delegates and regardless of the fact that Hillary will win only a handful of delegates more than her opponent thanks to the proportional system employed by the Democrats, it is in the kinds of voters that Obama is losing – and losing by significant margins – that should worry superdelegates as they struggle to decide which candidate will be the stronger in the general election.
Hillary Clinton’s 10-point margin of victory is not as important as who is rejecting Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee. A few eye opening numbers from the exit polls tell the story of a party divided by race, by religion, by gender, by economic circumstances, and by values.
Hillary Clinton received 62% of the white vote. Barack Obama received 89% of the African American vote. The question facing superdelegates is: how can they run a candidate who loses the white vote by almost 2-1 in a state they absolutely must carry to win the election? And it wasn’t just the voter’s race that made a difference. Clinton ran up astonishing majorities in the mostly white, mostly rural counties in the northeast part of the state. In Luzerne county she received 75% of the vote. She got 70% of the vote in Wyoming county. Culturally conservative but economically moderate, these blue collar voters in places like Scranton and Wilkes-Barre were considered at one time “Reagan Democrats” – reliable Democratic voters when it came to candidates on the down ballot but Republican when voting for President. In recent elections, they have returned to the Democratic party in greater numbers and have given the party a victory in the state in every election since 1988.
These are the voters Barack Obama told his rich donor friends in San Francisco were “clinging” to religion and guns rather than voting what he feels are their economic interests. Indeed, Clinton bagged 58% of gun owners in the state while taking 58% of those who attend church weekly. Obama received 56% of the votes from those who never attend religious services.
There is no evidence that Obama’s San Francisco remarks cost him any votes. But they certainly didn’t win him any, and the comments may have reinforced the image with these rural white voters that Obama does not share their core values.
The religious divide also tells a story. For the first time since 1976, Democrats won the nationwide Catholic vote in 2006. This vote is vital in several northeastern states and is important in states that lie along an arc that extends from the shores of Lake Erie in New York down through the rest of the Great Lakes, all the way to Illinois and then up through Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. The Catholic vote is decisive in Pennsylvania with nearly 40% of the total vote last night made up of Catholics.
Hillary Clinton won 69% of the Catholic vote in Pennsylvania. How can the superdelegates support a candidate -Obama- who does so poorly with such a vital Democratic constituency? And Catholics weren’t the only religious group that rejected him decisively. Jewish voters, who made up 7% of the total vote in Pennsylvania and which is critical in other states, sided with Hillary Clinton by a 57%-43% margin.
Another reliable Democratic constituency are those who make less than $50,000 a year in earnings. Solidly for Clinton this entire primary season, these middle class voters went for Hillary 54-48. The only economic groups that went for Obama were those making less than $15,000 and more than $150,000. Superdelegates may be asking where Obama’s economic appeal lies: with young folks making less $15,000 for sure as well as rich liberals. But judging by how Clinton racked up large margins among all other income groups – an average of 55% – the supers should perhaps be worried just how broad Obama’s base of support would be during a general election campaign.
The gender gap is well established by this time, and it is no surprise that Clinton received 57% of the women’s vote. But Clinton usually does extremely poorly with male voters so it was something of a surprise that she only lost men by 4 points, 52-48 (in Virginia, she got just 30% of the male vote).
Clinton’s victory was as complete as some of her blowout defeats earlier in the campaign season were. And the victory margins she racked up among exactly the kind of voters she has been arguing to superdelegates that Democrats need to win the general election can only buttress her case.
But is it enough? Do the superdelegates – indeed, does the party itself – risk alienating African Americans, their most reliable voting bloc, by denying Obama the nomination when he will almost certainly be leading in pledged delegates when the primaries are concluded? Do they risk driving away the millions of new voters Obama has brought into the process by what might be seen as a shady, backroom deal to deny their candidate the nomination?
Until a week ago, I would have said “not a chance.” Now, I would say that Clinton has a sliver of hope. Her decisive victory in Pennsylvania has re-energized her campaign, aided her fundraising efforts greatly, and has put Obama on the defensive for the first time in a long time. Her criticisms of Obama may finally be scoring with the electorate and Obama’s own actions in dodging the press (he hasn’t had a press conference for 11 days), and eschewing debates may end up strengthening her case with superdelegates.
She is still a long shot. But if politics can be described as a horse race at times, she is moving up on the outside down the backstretch and gaining on the leader. Whether she’ll run out of track before overtaking Obama will be a question that will occupy Democrats for the next six weeks.
Rick Moran is PJM’s Chicago editor and runs the blog Rightwing Nuthouse.