Friday, April 25, 2008

Explaining Indiana: Culture, context, and demographics in the Obama-Clinton race

By Michael J.W. Stickings

(Following up on my post from earlier today.)

As I mentioned earlier, Indiana is, at the moment, a toss-up. The polls show an extremely close race that could go either way. Obama has the advantage of being from Illinois, next door, and he should do well in Indianapolis and in the northwest, near Chicago. Hillary, meanwhile, should do well everywhere else.

Posts today by Balz at WaPo and Scheiber at TNR have prompted me to delve a bit deeper into the nuances of the state:

Media coverage of the Obama-Clinton race has been poor -- I hardly need to tell you that -- but it's much worse than the obvious decontextualizing and sensationalizing that is so common nowadays and that has been the evident focus of the coverage throughout the race.

Basically, prevailing media narratives are shallow. It's all about who's supposedly up or down according to polls that may or may not be reliable, who supposedly has momentum, what the expectations are heading into a vote, be it a primary or caucuses, and who is winning this or that metric. Given their inability to think (self-)critically, as well as to look at the race from a more detached perspective, the media are also easily manipulated by campaign spin, unironically incorporating such spin into how they cover the race, that is, into their narratives, all of which are of the moment, one replacing another when the existing one gets stale or when new spin gains traction.

Throughout the Obama-Clinton race, we've heard a lot about demographics: Obama wins these groups (blacks, students, affluent and educated suburbanites, independents and crossover Republicans, etc.), Hillary wins those groups (women, working-class whites, Hispanics, the elderly, etc.), and that's it. How well they do depends on how well they do among their core constituencies, as well as on to what extent, if at all, they eat into the other's core constituencies.

This is the media worldview, an American electorate segregated into specific and discrete demographic groups. The problem is, the world, and the American electorate, is much more complex than the media worldview would have us believe.

Take Indiana, for example:

According to the media worldview, Obama will win his core constituencies and Hillary will win hers. And, what's more, Indiana seems to be a lot like Ohio and Pennsylvania, another Rust Belt state. Shouldn't it play out the way those two states did?

Maybe it will, but, whatever the similarities, Indiana is not exactly like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which Hillary won, nor exactly like Wisconsin or Missouri, which Obama won. Here's Scheiber:

Dan Balz's take on the Indiana primary got me thinking about a subtle advantage Obama has in the state: Even though it's somewhat similar demographically to two of the states he's lost by large margins -- Ohio and Pennsylvania--it's also overwhelmingly Republican. For Obama, the beauty of this is that there probably isn't an especially strong statewide Democratic machine that can swing into action for Hillary. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign tends to excel at organizing virgin territory (territory that borders his home state, no less).

*****

Balz also makes a point along the lines of my post yesterday on that McCain Obama memo: Indiana, he writes, "is neither a carbon copy of Ohio and Pennsylvania -- whose demographics and political culture were favorable to Clinton -- nor is it Wisconsin, whose demographics were similar to Ohio and Pennsylvania but whose political culture is not.

Which is to say, it is important to keep in mind not just the similarities between and among states but also the dissimilarities, that is, the particulars of each state, particulars that make each state unique, as well as the timing (when the vote was held in the overall primary/caucus season).

Take Ohio, for example. Why did Hillary win there? Not just because of demographics (an abundance of white working-class voters) but because she was well ahead there before the campaigning started in earnest, because she had much of the Democratic Party establishment behind her, because of the Clinton name (and what Bill did as president that made him popular there), because her "kitchen sink" attacks on Obama had weakened him, and because, in particular, of NAFTA-gate.

Why did she win Pennsylvania? Again, not just because of demographics but because the political machinery was behind her, including Governor Ed Rendell (hence, perhaps, her big wins in the Philadelphia suburbs and exurbs), because the weeks leading up to the vote were tough on Obama (Wright, Bittergate, etc.), and so on.

In other words, demographics matter, but so so culture, context, and timing.

It remains to be seen whether Obama does in fact have "a subtle advantage" in heavily Republican Indiana. What is certainly true, though, is that Indiana is no Ohio and no Pennsylvania. We can learn a lot from what happened in those two states, as from other, similar states, but, on March 6, contra all those shallow media narratives and the narrow media worldview, Indiana will be voting as a state with its own distinct identity.

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