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February 6, 2008

Democrats' Identity Politics Getting More Sharply Defined

Exit polling for Super Tuesday contests show a growing trend towards division by ethnicity among Democrats. With the race as tight as it is, the identity politics that the party has fostered over the years has now become one of the points of division. If the primaries continue to deliver mixed results, this could provide some fireworks:

Yesterday's primary voting laid bare a profound racial and ethnic divide among Democratic voters, with African Americans overwhelmingly preferring Sen. Barack Obama and Latinos largely favoring Sen. Hillary Clinton.

The results of preliminary exit polls in nine key states indicate that Obama attracted the support of two-thirds to nine-tenths of black voters, except in Clinton's home state of New York. That pattern suggests that the first-term Illinois senator's strong appeal among African Americans -- first on display in the South Carolina primary last month -- is more widespread. It also means that Clinton is not the automatic heir to the wide popularity her husband enjoyed among black voters as president.

Yesterday's contests, however, featured several states, including California, with large Hispanic populations, and they selected Clinton by smaller but consistent margins.

The divergent choices by minority voters reflect broad issues of loyalty and identity, observers said, rather than specific differences in the candidates' stances on issues. "There is so little distance between the policies, it comes down to personality, style and name recognition," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, based in Los Angeles.

This parallels the more contentious tussle between women and black voters over which faction gets to have their chance first at a major party presidential nomination. It also overlays it, creating a multi-level morass of identity politics. Given the lack of clear differences between Hillary and Obama on policy or experience, Democratic voters have apparently latched onto gender and ethnic identities as the determinant, and even that has produced a dead heat.

John McCain's ascendancy makes this a huge problem. If they nominate Hillary, she can carry the women's vote, but some of the Hispanics she now has supporting her may be tempted to cupport McCain for his (very) public stands on immigration policy. A tight win over Barack Obama, especially in a brokered convention or through the use of superdelegates, could lose her support in the African-American community, which has already shown some signs of breaking more towards McCain than other Republican contenders in the last few years.

If Barack Obama wins the nomination, he holds the black voters, and possibly the women. Hispanics, however, will almost certainly bolt to McCain. In either scenario, it could create some coattails for Republican candidates. The alienation of key voter blocs will depress turnout and force some to consider a switch, which would make the GOP an almost unwitting beneficiary of the heightened identity-politics divide.


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