Politics & Government

Dems: We've come a long way, baby!

Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama in June 2007.
Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama in June 2007. C.J. Gunther/EPA

BOONE, Iowa — Twenty years ago, when a black man was running for president and a woman was considering it, the two were viewed mainly through the prism of identity politics: What would Jesse Jackson's campaign mean to black political ascendancy? What did Pat Schroeder mean to the women's movement?

Neither really expected to win; both were most valuable as spot checks for the state of the American psyche when it came to minorities and political power. Schroeder's testing of the waters is remembered chiefly for the tears she cried when she announced she wouldn't run.

Now, the two top candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are a woman, Hillary Clinton, and a black man, Barack Obama. Both fully expect to win. Both embrace their identities, but that's hardly the driving force of either candidacy.

Strikingly, several Democratic voters interviewed this week in the mostly white, early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire said they stopped consciously thinking about either candidate's race or gender months ago as they watched Clinton and Obama campaign.

Some voters said they consider ending the Iraq war so pressing a priority that it has pushed aside once-urgent social considerations.

"I'm more interested in putting the right person in office," said Bill Bushore, a small-business owner who attended a Clinton rally at the Gigglin' Goat restaurant in Boone, Iowa. He's deciding between Clinton and Obama. "At this point, a woman or a minority is a non-issue for me. I just like Hillary and Obama's approach to speaking in common-sense terms."

Susan Arnold, conservation director for the Appalachian Mountain Club, who attended an Obama speech this week in Portsmouth, N.H., and is undecided, said, "I probably think about Hillary Clinton as the first woman president and Barack Obama as the first black president in the sense of, 'Isn't it a wonderful time we live in?'

"I don't really think about it other than that — just to sort of marvel. Both come across in person as very intelligent, thinking, substantive people that aren't running as an icon of this or a representative of that."

To be sure, some voters said they or those they know aren't sure they're ready for a black person or a woman in the Oval Office. Some worry how either might fare in a general election. And some women and blacks say they can't help but get excited about supporting someone more like themselves.

In Clinton's campaign, the girl-power theme isn't dominant but it's there — from the all-girl band ("Raining Jane") that opened a rally in Ames, Iowa, this week to an anecdote Clinton has begun using to close her campaign speeches.

First, she cites a 95-year-old woman who attended a rally and told Clinton: "'I was born before women could vote, and I'm gonna live long enough to see a woman in the White House,' and I told her, Amen! Amen!" Then Clinton mentions the young girls she meets and the parents who tell those girls after meeting Clinton: "'See, you can be anything you want to be.'"

Obama doesn't really go there unless he's talking to a black audience. Instead, his race pitch is usually in the context of how being the son of a white Kansas woman and a black Kenyan father, and for a while the stepson of an Indonesian man, gives him a foot in all those worlds and enough common currency to unite people.

"I have a grandmother who lives in a small village in Africa without running water or electricity, and that community has been ravaged by malaria and AIDS. So when I talk about these issues, I know what I'm talking about," Obama told voters this week in Plymouth, N.H. "I can go to southeast Asia and go to Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, and I lived there for four years, and so I can talk to the Muslim world and say, 'We have common interests.'"

Yet these are sub-themes; for the most part, Clinton and Obama are running post-gender, post-race campaigns — focusing on the war, jobs, health care, government spending and the environment — campaigns designed to appeal to all moderate to left-leaning Americans, including white men.

Then, too, neither one is a "typical" female or black candidate.

Clinton, a New York senator and former first lady, brings a wealth of fame and experience to the campaign, compared with Schroeder in 1988, who had served eight terms in relative obscurity as a Colorado congresswoman, or compared with Geraldine Ferraro, who was given the No. 2 slot on the Democratic ticket in 1984 after three terms as a House of Representatives member from New York. Clinton also undeniably benefits from the boost of her husband's enduring popularity with many voters.

But mainly her supporters see her as a knowledgeable candidate who can "go in there and kick butt," as Carol Muenzenmeyer, a nurse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, put it. No fear of tears from Clinton.

Obama, elected to the Senate from Illinois after delivering a memorable 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, is the first African-American politician to achieve national prominence independent of the civil rights movement. Now 46, he was just 6 when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.

Some Democrats said this week that they think Obama's light skin, Harvard Law pedigree and upbringing by his mother and white grandparents make him easier for white voters to accept as a candidate.

Ron Walters, a University of Maryland professor and former Jackson campaign adviser, called Obama's approach a matter of practical necessity.

"He's tried to neutralize race issues by playing to the middle of the electorate, which is predominantly white ... and which has shifted right," Walters said. "Jesse Jackson's campaign and Al Sharpton's (2004) campaign rose at the margins of the electorate."

John McKinney, a railroad conductor from Boone, Iowa, who's undecided, said he saw the phenomenon as "as a sign of the maturing of American society." Race and gender "are basically irrelevant," he said.

But it's difficult to gather data to test that premise, said David Redlawsk, a University of Iowa political scientist and pollster, and some polls suggest race and gender do matter.

A University of Iowa poll conducted last March found that 90.9 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers said a candidate's race wasn't important to them; 92.9 percent said gender was irrelevant.

But when asked whether Obama's race or Clinton's gender could hurt them in a general election, 40.4 percent said yes for Obama and 51 percent said yes for Clinton.

"We've reached a time when social convention suggests it's not appropriate to express these concerns openly," Redlawsk said. "But in the privacy of the voting booth? People don't necessarily understand their own reasons much of the time."


Sen. Hillary Clinton's national lead surged last week in both Washington Post-ABC News and Associated Press polling. Read the full data and question wording from the Post-ABC poll.