White Voter Trap

Why Clinton wasn’t intentionally playing the race card.

Hillary Clinton

When Hillary Clinton told USA Today that she was winning the white vote, she opened herself up to the charge that this was the latest gambit in her attempt to use Barack Obama’s race to defeat him. It fit somewhere between Bob Johnson’s ham-fisted attempt to argue that Obama wasn’t black enough (while also bringing up his past drug use) and Bill Clinton’s reference to Jesse Jackson after Obama’s South Carolina primary win, which many saw as an attempt to dismiss Obama as a candidate with limited mass appeal.

I don’t interpret Clinton’s latest remarks that way. Instead, I see Sen. Clinton trapped in an unforgiving episode of Iron Chef. Time is almost up, and she’s got to make a meal out of the spare ingredients left. She’s in too much of a rush to check if those mushrooms are poisonous. She grabbed the AP story listing the demographic groups that she is winning and ran down the list just as pundits have been doing for months.

Maybe I’m naive. Or maybe I think you have to have a little more proof before you claim someone’s a cynical race-baiter. Exhaustion and desperation seem a more likely explanation for Clinton’s dancing close to the white-vote land mine than more devilish motives. As Barack Obama has wisely said, we should give our exhausted candidates a break. (Of course, Clinton didn’t give him any quarter when he bungled his characterization of people who live in small towns.)

As campaign veteran Joe Trippi explained to me months ago, the survival instinct that takes hold at the bitter end is not necessarily unique to the Clintons. After months and months of fighting, no one wants to give up. With no perspective or time for fear, you grab the weaponry at hand and keep fighting. So Clinton is arguing she’s going to count Puerto Rican votes to show she’s won the popular vote—even though Puerto Ricans can’t participate in the general election. She’ll whip off a PowerPoint presentation to show how she’s won conservative districts. Everything will be pressed into service given the desperate state of things.

Perhaps the best reason it seems likely Clinton wasn’t intentionally playing the race card is that she knows it would kill her chances at convincing superdelegates to back her. Roughly 250 of them are still staring out their windows in a rapturous state of ponder, thumbing Hamlet, and not making up their minds. Clinton has to somehow convince roughly 70 percent of them to support her. At the moment, they’re heading in the other direction as quickly as these risk-averse party-types can go. Obama has won 80 percent of the more than 130 or so superdelegates that have picked a candidate since Super Tuesday. Since the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, he has raked in 14 to Clinton’s three.

Clinton’s chances are so narrow and flickering as to be almost nonexistent, but of those superdelegates with whom she might still have a chance, sensitivity to race and its potential to divide the party is a big issue. It may be the issue, according to some of her aides. The more Clinton appears to have benefited by playing the race card or benefiting from racism that exists but she didn’t foment, the harder it will be for superdelegates to support her. At a personal level, they won’t want to look like they are ratifying her racial politics or the racist behavior of white voters. They also know that if they don’t choose Obama, and his supporters think race was the reason he didn’t get the nomination, those voters will be lost to the party for the general election. Not only will blacks stay home, but liberals and the first-time voters Obama has attracted will do the same, disgusted with party fat cats sanctioning what they’ll view as racist behavior.

This means Clinton may be past the point at which she can make her best case. It’s true that she is beating Obama among a variety of demographic groups. In particular, she’s thumping him soundly with white working-class men. There’s little evidence this will translate into a problem for Obama in the general election—in the latest Diageo/Hotline poll, he does just as well as Clinton among whites against John McCain. Still, Clinton’s argument along these lines is the best she has. The more she tries to make this case, though, the more she risks spooking the superdelegates. Assert that Obama can’t win among whites or certain groups of whites often enough, and it just might stick in the heads of white voters that he’s somehow irrevocably damaged. To avoid that tarnishing, superdelegates might move all the faster toward Obama, lest Clinton seriously harm the eventual nominee.

The debate over Clinton’s tactics could be the next chapter in that national conversation about race Barack Obama talked about in his Pennsylvania speech in March. Of course, the last thing in the world the Obama campaign wants is a conversation about race now, when he’s all but won the nomination. It’s much easier, and politically smarter, for them to imply that the Clintons are playing the race card or to let the superdelegates come to that conclusion on their own. After the clock runs out, the expansive conversation about race can presumably start again.