Election 2008

Media Downplay Widespread Support for Hillary

Wonkish Clinton may never match Obama's soaring rhetoric about hope, but the media should not underestimate the strength of her campaign.
The political and media hype about the Kennedy family's anointment of Senator Barack Obama eclipsed the Clinton campaign's boots-on-the-ground organizational work in the 22 states with Democratic primaries on Super Tuesday.

In the end, Hillary Clinton held her own through hard work and an improved message, and continued to court women who rewarded her with a 20-point margin over Obama. She took New York, New Jersey, the prized battleground state of California -- and Massachusetts -- as well as Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Arizona (where Governor Janet Napolitano had endorsed Obama).

Right after her comeback victory in New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign put a priority on getting Californians to vote absentee. More than half of Californians did just that, blunting the Obama momentum of the past week that had cut her lead to nothing. She bought time on Spanish-language broadcast outlets, not just those broadcasting in English.

Clinton emerged from Super Tuesday with a 70-delegate margin over Obama, but primaries coming in the next week will pose new challenges, in Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington, Maine, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Obama increased his credibility and votes with whites, most notably in the South and Midwest. He may have inherited votes of white men from former Senator John Edwards, who dropped out a week ago. Obama took 13 states. And he took every state that held caucuses rather than primaries, reflecting his strength with more liberal Democrats who turn out to caucus.

On election eve, the pundits were back-pedaling somewhat from their predictions days earlier that the Obama endorsement by Senator Edward Kennedy and his niece, Caroline Kennedy, would prove fatal to Clinton -- with union voters, Latinos and in delegate-rich states such as California.

Clinton withstood the Kennedy onslaught. And one of the sweetest victories was the earliest: an upset in Kennedy's home turf of Massachusetts, with women voting for her 62-36. One of her key supporters, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, said his state was "Clinton country" and that the election "was about real people," about the working class.

Clinton won the hotly contested California primary with a huge margin among Hispanics, Asians -- and women. Women voted for her by a commanding 57-39 margin, ignoring appeals last weekend from Oprah Winfrey, Caroline Kennedy and her cousin Maria Shriver to switch to Obama.

Clinton's endorsements from three children of the late Robert Kennedy had been discounted, when noticed at all, by the East Coast media. They wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece that ran soon after Caroline Kennedy's bombshell Obama endorsement that, in essence, deeds count more than poetic words. Former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said she had worked with Clinton for 25 years, as had her two brothers for 15 years, on issues of children and poverty. This may have had resonance with California Latinos.

They stayed hitched to Clinton. They also turned out in record numbers, comprising nearly 30 percent of the California vote, voting 66-33 for Clinton. Hispanic women also voted with Clinton in Obama's home state of Illinois, as well as in other states where they are a significant bloc, such as New Jersey and New Mexico.

Super Tuesday reinforced certain realities. Obama does best with blacks, more affluent and better educated voters and with those under 30. He is doing better with whites than in earlier primaries. Clinton wins with a solid bloc of women voters, a better than 2-1 margin among Hispanics, an even larger one among Asian voters and a major edge among older voters.

That doesn't tell the full story. Women are turning out in record numbers and have averaged 58 percent of Democratic primary voters. Young voters are not. Their turnout Tuesday ranged from 8 percent in New Mexico to 16 percent in California but the average was about 12 percent -- not much more than their historic average. The Iowa caucus surge of young voters has not been replicated elsewhere.

More pertinent is the fact that Obama's clout with young voters is eclipsed by Clinton's strength with voters 60 and over, who form a core chunk of the Democratic electorate. They constituted 30 percent of the voters in New York and Massachusetts, 36 percent in New Mexico, 28 percent in California and 32 percent in Missouri.

The outside noise of a severely distressed economy may affect the coming votes. Clinton's wonkish speeches on specific economic programs may kick in here to provide a more secure basis of support than had been thought. That is partly because she is spelling out relief plans for homeowners who risk losing their homes in the subprime mortgage crisis. When she talks about reform of the health care system, she talks about providing relief to small business owners who face huge and escalating health care costs for their workers.

And Clinton may be getting more comfortable with finding a more lyrical way of talking about what she wants to do. She'll never match Obama in his soaring rhetoric about hope.

But, in her election-night speech, she said she'd work for "people on the day shift, the night shift, the late shift with the crying baby" and for "all those who aren't in the headlines but have always written America's story."
Peggy Simpson worked 17 years for the Associated Press, in Texas and Washington, D.C.; covered economics and politics for the Hearst Newspapers, served as Washington bureau chief for Ms. magazine and reported on Eastern Europe's transition from communism to a Democratic market economy, as a freelancer during the 1990s. She has taught at Indiana University, George Washington University and at the American Studies Center at Warsaw University. She currently is a freelance writer in Washington.