Commentary Magazine


Competitive Victimization

The Hillary/Obama race vs. gender dustup has just given the country a taste of why the Democratic Party spent so many years in the wilderness. The game of competitive victimization reminds swing voters in general and white men in particular why the Democrats can be problematic.

The night of her unexpected New Hampshire victory on the basis of a strong turnout from blue collar female voters, the press began to explain away the polls that had pointed to an Obama landslide by referring to “the Bradley effect.” That refers to the experience in Los Angeles where Tom Bradley, L.A.’s first African-American mayor, who did far better in public opinion polls than at the ballot box where he failed to win the governorship in 1982. The thesis was that white voters, not wanting to appear racist are reluctant to tell pollster about how they truly feel about black candidates. The implication–laid out without clear evidence by Andrew Kohut, a pollster for the Pew Research Center and picked up by the likes of Maureen Dowd–was that Clinton won on the basis of the racism of lower-middle-class whites.

This is something the many Obama admirers in the press picked up and ran with. The problem, as John Judis shows in a detailed New Republic piece, is that “Obama’s support among New Hampshire Democrats without college degrees slightly increased from the pre-election poll to the exit poll.” Clinton’s late gains, Judis notes came from well educated women who might well have been responding to the now famous incident in a dinner where the former First Lady seemed to tear up under the weight on being doubled teamed by Obama and Edwards.

And that’s when matters began to heat up. People around the Obama campaign, though not the candidate himself, suggested that Clinton had played on her supposed victimization as a woman, to win an election driven by economic anxieties. Obama in this view had been victimized by both his race and his gender. As for race; the supposed “Bradley effect” as well as statements by Bill and Hillary which may or may not have had double meanings regarding Lyndon Johnson’s role in achievements of the Civil Rights Era and the constancy of Obama position on Iraq have led to implausible accusations of racial insensitivity on the part of the Clintons.

In the short run, this is good news for the Obama campaign which has done its best to keep its fingerprints off the matches being lit by the press but stands to benefit greatly in the upcoming South Carolina primary if the accusation shift African-American voters away from Hillary Clinton.

On one level none of this hair-trigger “sensitivity” should be taken too seriously. All the parties involved are marvels at playing double games. A practical effect of the race versus gender game may be increased pressure on Hillary Clinton to choose Obama as her running mate should she win the nomination. But it raises the issue of whether Americans who are neither black nor female will be allowed to ask serious question about the two leading Democratic candidates without potential accusation of bias of one sort or another.

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