27 January 2008

South Carolina and identity politics

Obama, of course, won, and did so by a much larger margin than expected -- 55% to 27%. Some observers, predictably including Andrew Sullivan (whose Clinton-bashing has lately become both obsessive and thoroughly tiresome), are touting this as a turning point in the race. I'm not so sure.

For better or worse, the role of identity politics in this election is clearly large and growing. Black voters have overwhelmingly favored Obama at every opportunity. Almost all of Huckabee's votes have come from evangelical Christians. And women have favored Clinton by substantial margins.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with this. Democracy is meant to be a representative system, and particularly for groups which have usually been underrepresented at the highest levels of the government, it is understandable that they may prefer to see one of their own elevated to power.

To the extent that identity politics is a factor, however, it means that the outcome of voting will largely turn on the relative sizes of the demographic groups making up the electorate, and the extent to which each group's vote is swayed by identity considerations.

In South Carolina, Obama won only 25% of the white vote. The white male vote went Edwards 45%, Clinton 28%, Obama 27%; the white female vote went Clinton 42%, Edwards 36%, Obama 22%. Identity considerations clearly played a role. (Interestingly, race seems to trump gender among black women, 78% of whom voted for Obama.) To the extent that this pattern holds in the future, it will favor Clinton, especially after Edwards drops out, as he will sooner or later. Either a black President or a woman President would be a historic advance for a traditionally underrepresented group, but women make up a much larger share of the electorate.

(The fact that white males outside South Carolina have not shown a similar propensity to vote for Edwards reflects the fact that, to say the least, they're not a traditionally underrepresented group in politics, which makes identity-based voting redundant.)

Of course, not all voting is on an identity basis, as the Iowa result showed. The majority of people vote for the candidate who seems most capable and/or best represents their views on the issues, who may or may not be of the same identity group as themselves. Identity-based voting is a tendency, which apparently can give a candidate an advantage of ten or twenty percentage points among voters of that candidate's group. But in a close race, that is quite enough.

Aside from identity politics, South Carolina continues the pattern of remarkably high turnout on the Democratic side. Total turnout was 530,000, compared with 442,000 in the Republican primary a week before, in a state with more Republicans than Democrats. Clinton, losing the Democratic primary by a huge margin, got almost as many votes as the Republican winner; Obama got more votes than the top two Republicans combined (data here). It's clear which side is more fired up.

Republicans, meanwhile, are continuing to play demolition derby among themselves. One reason McCain is under attack from fellow conservatives is that, on a purely scientific question, he believes scientists rather than ideologues. Giuliani, who is probably the Republicans' best hope in the general election, is losing support because he is personally opposed to laws forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term; apparently not even the fact that he has promised to appoint reactionary judges can redeem him. If you think that our side is going to have trouble uniting behind our eventual nominee, just imagine what they're going to face.

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