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Dissecting the Democratic primary

Gary Caruso | Tuesday, February 12, 2008

In the Democratic presidential race, after analyzing voter trends in South Carolina, the 22 states during Super Duper Tuesday, and last weekend’s contests, one thing is perfectly clear – winning depends on slicing bits of support away from the opponent.

Analysts commonly agree that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are likely to remain neck-and-neck in the race well beyond March. The competition is between the sterling Clinton brand and the stimulating Obama movement. Both attract new voters to the process. Both draw equally impressive support across the nation as evidenced by the mere difference of only 50,000 votes from among nearly 15 million cast a week ago.

Yet each week brings new uncertainty. The demographics are so unique from state to state that the Clinton and Obama campaigns have learned how to peel off enough voters in select categories to win, but have yet to change their steady state-by-state trends. So long as Latinos support Clinton by 65 percent and African-Americans support Obama by 80 percent, both candidates will need to whittle at the edges of other support groups like women, men, union households, the well-educated or income categories in the various state primaries.

Overall, the campaigns can best be shaded to indicate their pockets of support – Obama has his African-American constituency with younger voters, the wealthy, highly educated liberals (the upscale elite Starbucks or McGovern/Kennedy wing of the party) who push environmental initiatives. Clinton, on the other hand, draws from a different spectrum with her Hispanic constituency and older, less educated, union members and working class voters. Note that whenever either candidate can deny the other of the average of support in any of these constituencies, the primary election will tilt.

It is also important to note that a primary election and a caucus are completely different creatures. Caucuses are community political theater held within full view of the public during a quite limited time frame. They restrict attendance to those who can venture out after routine work hours on a particular evening, sometimes during snow and ice storms. Participants enthusiastically display their support openly with their neighbors. That structure favors Obama.

Primaries, however, are better indicators of general election support since voters privately indicate their choices during an all-day time period-just like in the general election. They too can favor Obama if the electorate is significantly comprised with one of his core constituencies, such as African-Americans in Georgia and South Carolina. Possibly, the most telling primary results to study thus far are ones in which ethnic minorities more resembled the national average – or where one minority group equals the other – such as the Northeast primary splits in Massachusetts and Connecticut, or further west with the trio of Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

How did Clinton win by 15 percentage points in the open Massachusetts primary where the governor and both U.S. senators opposed her? Obama was devoid of his core constituency with only 6 percent of African-Americans in the voter pool. Clinton won the women’s vote by more than a two-to-one margin while nearly splitting the men’s vote, losing by only one point. She also carried Obama’s signature strongholds, like the 18-to-24 year-old vote by nearly 20 points and upper-income voters by 10 points.

Next door in the closed Connecticut contest, however, Obama edged Clinton by four points overall from among only Democrats. He chipped away at the Clinton core by winning 57 percent of white men and 53 percent of Latinos. In this contest African-Americans and Latinos both equaled less than 10 percent. What makes Connecticut unique is the elite status of the voters, with nearly 80 percent college educated and three-quarters of the voters with above average incomes-strongholds of Obama.

In Missouri, where Obama edged Clinton by one percentage point, Clinton won 100 of 115 counties, yet lost the state. She carried white men (55 percent) and white women (59 percent), but Obama reached his threshold for winning a state by garnering 41 percent of white men. While the Obama campaign touts that their average for white men across the board is 41 percent, the statistic is skewed by his Illinois landslide and large upscale liberal support in coastal states like New York and California. His win in Missouri, with a near average pool of 20 percent African-American votes concentrated in the large cities, depended upon successfully slicing away Clinton’s white male support.

Missouri, Massachusetts and Connecticut netted Clinton 13 delegates even though Obama won two of those three contests. As Obama currently enjoys a streak of wins in smaller and middle-sized states, the coming months loom with Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania. Clinton can quickly counter his streak in those large states unless Obama slices into her core constituencies. The nomination may depend upon who has the sharper slicing technique.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, campaigned in Iowa for Hillary Clinton. He is a communications strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column usually appears every other Friday, except for election analysis. He can be contacted at hottline@aol.com.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.