Clinton and White People

I read about HRC advocate Mitch Stewart’s presentation on how his proto-candidate might expand the electoral battlefield in 2016 but didn’t pay much attention to it, since it clearly wasn’t intended to be anything more than speculative hype. But at the Prospect Paul Waldman took it seriously enough to use it as a departure point for some genuinely important if somewhat uncomfortable questions about the Democratic Party and race, mostly based on Hillary Clinton’s boffo performance among white voters, especially in Greater Appalachia:

Now let’s be honest about what was going on there. What, precisely, was the nature of Hillary Clinton’s “connection” to working-class white voters that produced those margins? Was it the fact that her pappy was an Appalachian coal miner? The years she spent playing steel guitar in the Grand Ole Opry house band? Her encyclopedic knowledge of Lawrence Welk trivia, with which she would wow the crowds at campaign rallies?

No, it was none of those things. It was something much simpler: unlike Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton is white. The totality of her “connection” is the fact that people who won’t vote for a black man might vote for her, just because of the color of her skin.

I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate; Clinton’s last name connected her with a rather famous Democrat who did share some Scotch-Irish roots with Appalachians, and who also did relatively well among such voters in his own campaigns. The bigger issue, though, is that HRC’s strong performance was among the steadily shrinking universe of white people in such places who still voted in Democratic presidential primaries. Some of them almost certainly voted for John McCain in the general election and would have done so with HRC on the ballot as well. Still, despite a lot of expressed worries about these Clinton voters defecting in the general election, most of them stayed with Obama, if I remember correctly the polls just before and after November of that year.

The bottom line is that there’s not a lot of evidence that HRC (because of her race or for other reasons) is going to do better than Obama among white voters–or worse among minority voters– in a general election. She may get marginal credit for not being Obama and thus not inheriting the negative perceptions harvested at the end of a controversial two-term presidency in a time of perceived economic distress. But partisan loyalty (even among self-identified independents) remains the single most important factor in voting behavior in most competitive elections, so the idea that HRC is going to reclaim Appalachia, where white voters have been deserting the Donkey Party steadily for years, strikes me as very unlikely.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.