In the New Hampshire primary, according to exit polls, 44% of voters who said that the economy was their top issue voted for Hillary Clinton. Also, 44% of voters who listed Iraq as their top issue voted for Obama. Leaving aside the 5% or primary voters who indicated that they wanted to keep troops in Iraq, the following factors were all more determinative of someone's vote in the New Hampshire Democratic primary than any of the candidate's position on any issue:
- 60% of those under 25 years of age voted for Obama
- 52% of Christians who are neither Catholic nor Protestant voted for Clinton
- 51% of unmarried women voted for Clinton
- 50% of unmarried men voted for Obama
- 50% of those making less than $30K a year voted for Clinton
- 48% of those over 65 years of age voted for Clinton
- 48% of those who did not attend college voted for Clinton
- 46% of women voted for Clinton
- 45% of seculars voted for Obama
Age, gender, marital status, income, and education were all more determinative of how someone voted in New Hampshire than any issue. In other words, the New Hampshire primary, just like the Iowa caucuses before it, was determined by identity, not issues. Sure, 58% of those vote took the exit poll claimed that issues were more important to them than personal qualities, but the other exit poll numbers show otherwise. People want to think that they are voting on issues, but in reality most of them are not.
Now, I have been writing about the intersection between identity politics and elections for three years. In fact, it is one of my most frequent topics of discussion, as a glance at the demographics archive of both Open Left and MyDD will demonstrate. However, I admit that most of this discussion has been triumphalist, in that I argue demographic trends point to a nearly inevitable Democratic dominance over Republicans, and to a nearly inevitable progressive dominance over centrists in the Democratic Party. What I wasn't prepared for was to face electoral defeat in the Democratic primaries as a result of the identity scales tipping against my favorite candidates.
The problem I face is that it now seems to me that Clinton is positioned for victory in the Democratic primary because, as it is presently constructed, the identity politics coalitions within the Democratic primary electorate favor her. She has women, older voters, and lower income voters who are not African-American. Even though I had assumed otherwise, right now, it seems like that coalition can win a national Democratic primary against a coalition of African-Americans, young voters, seculars, and high education voters. As someone who falls primarily within the latter coalition, I admit it doesn't feel good when the identity politics are stacked against you. To put it a different way, I actually write about identity politics all the time, I just don't like when I am on the losing end of elections based on identity politics (which is, actually, almost all elections).
I don't hate identity politics, as I see it as an unavoidable factor in the American political system. If you want to play in American politics, you better be willing to play in identity politics. Granted, as we have seen in numerous recent remarks from the Clinton and Obama campaigns, it also isn't the most edifying form of discussion around. I left academia because, after several years, it seemed like a series of incredibly smart, stimulating discussions about issues that weren't really that important. Unfortunately, at least partially due to the dominance of identity politics, I have found being a political professional to be exactly the opposite: a series of pretty stupid arguments about incredibly important issues. But there is no way to avoid it, and if you want to play in American politics, you better be prepared to play in identity politics. Identity is far more determinative of ideological and partisan tendencies than any "issue" could ever be. This even goes for dominant issues like Iraq.
Whoever wins this nomination will ultimately do so because s/he put together a larger, identity-based coalition. I wish that weren't the case, but I don't think there is a way to avoid it. If you support a candidate, and want to help him or her win the nomination, you would be wise to start thinking of ways to effectively connect that candidate to the identities of those voters with whom you come into contact. As far as I can tell, on both a micro and macro level, that is the key to the nomination.