Obama and the Democratic Unpersuadables

It was probably inevitable that things would end up like this. Here we are on the eve of the Democratic National Convention that will crown Barack Obama, and the national political conversation remains preoccupied with Hillary Clinton and her supporters. What will Clinton say in Denver? And how will her backers respond?

The speculation has endured since the close of the Democratic primary season in part because of the compelling Obama-vs.-the-Clintons human drama, but mainly because, according to poll after poll, Clinton’s primary season supporters have stubbornly clung to their candidate, refusing to close ranks around Obama – and even, in some cases, defecting to John McCain. Case in point: an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday that indicates that just half of Clinton’s primary voters are prepared to back Obama in November, and than one in five plan to pull the lever for McCain.

Coupled with Obama’s inability to build much of a lead over McCain in national polls (and McCain’s mini-surge in recent days), this data would seem to support the idea that residual loyalty to Clinton (and resentment of Obama) among her primary season backers has prevented Obama from enjoying the kind of party unity past Democratic nominees have taken for granted. If he doesn’t massage the Clinton forces’ egos and if Clinton herself doesn’t take an active role on his behalf this fall, a sizable chunk of her 18 million primary voters will remain off-limits to him, potentially costing him the presidency.

That certainly seems logical, but there is another way of looking at this.

It’s important to consider the seeming resistance of Clinton’s supporters to Obama in the context of the exceptional voter participation in this year’s Democratic nominating contest. All told, just over 38 million people took part in primaries in caucuses, their loyalties split roughly evenly between Obama and Clinton (with a scattering of votes for John Edwards, Bill Richardson and the rest of the JV squad). No other primary season in history even comes close to this. For instance, in the 1992 Democratic primaries – the last time before this year that a Democratic race produced suspense that lasted for more than the first few contests – about 19.5 million votes were cast.

Given how radically expanded this year’s Democratic primary electorate was, this suggests that a large number of casual Democratic voters took part – people who don’t typically identify with the Democratic Party but who took an interest in this year’s race because of some combination of: (a) its competitiveness; (b) the outsize personalities involved, and (c) the intense, global media coverage it attracted. By contrast, past primaries – like ’92, for example – featured narrower electorates more dominated by hardened party loyalists, the kinds of voters who are much more likely to unite when the primaries end. When turnout reaches the astronomical level it did this year, it may be unreasonable to expect the loser’s supporters to coalesce around the winner as unanimously as they’ve done in the past. Party loyalty means much less to such a diluted electorate of casual Democrats.

It’s also probably a mistake to assume that all, or even most, of Clinton’s 18 million voters feel a sense of personal loyalty to her – and that, by extension, millions of votes will come flowing Obama’s way at the snap of his former opponent’s finger.

To be sure, many Clinton supporters are fanatically loyal to her – just read this story by The Observer’s Jason Horowitz, if you have any doubt. But their loud noise and online activism can be very misleading, as Ron Paul’s supporters proved this year. The “PUMA” crowd represents some of Clinton’s 18 million voters, but their devotion is probably not representative of the attitudes of the 50 percent of Clinton voters not currently backing Obama.

This is not a knock on Clinton. It’s simply the reality of national politics. One of the biggest mistakes candidates for national office routinely make is assuming that every vote they received was a personal endorsement of them – the kind of thinking that led John Kerry to flirt with a follow-up presidential bid after his 2004 loss. Actually, each candidate’s coalition in general elections and intense primary campaigns is filled with voters who are at best ambivalent about that candidate. Many show up mainly to vote against the candidate’s opponent.

Clinton’s primary-season coalition certainly included its share of anti-Obama voters, those who don’t like the Illinois senator or those who didn’t think he’d make a strong fall candidate (or a strong president, for that matter). This didn’t mean they had warm feelings toward Clinton; only that they found her more palatable. Just as significantly, her campaign became the home for much of the old Democratic coalition – less-educated and lower-income white voters, senior citizens, Hispanics and women. Again, many of these voters – like Walter Mondale’s in 1984 – weren’t particularly keen on her, but couldn’t identify at all with the coalition of younger, more educated and higher-income reformers that Obama had assembled.

Many of these Clinton supporters are now resisting Obama for the same reason they did in the primaries. It has nothing to do with a desire to show loyalty to Clinton, and they aren’t sitting around waiting for some signal from her that it’s time to rally to Obama. Obama is the first nominee since George McGovern from the “reform” wing of the party; it’s only natural that he’d have some trouble winning over the party regulars in the fall. Add this to his difficulty with the casual independents and newly registered Democrats who favored Clinton in the primaries, and his struggle with Clinton’s supporters doesn’t seem so extraordinary.

Interestingly, both the NBC/WSJ poll and another new one from Fox News tested Clinton’s performance in a hypothetical matchup with McCain. In the Fox poll, she ran three points ahead of McCain – identical to Obama’s performance – and in NBC’s she fared three points better. In other words, not a huge difference – despite all the talk that Obama should be “way ahead.” It seems that if Clinton were the nominee, she’d have the same problem with Obama’s supporters that he has with hers. Again, this is understandable, since Obama’s coalition is highly (at least compared to Clinton’s) independent. This year’s primary electorate, it seems, was just too large and too diverse to expect a giant group hug at the end.

This doesn’t mean that Obama can’t do better with Clinton’s backers. But Clinton herself doesn’t hold the keys to this kingdom.

Obama and the Democratic Unpersuadables