I’ve been trying to understand why Hillary Clinton’s "popular vote" argument carries such power, and why the pundits' responses and those of the Obama campaign don’t seem adequate to dent it.
We here at dkos and an increasing number of the media pundits recognize that the statement "I’ve won the popular vote" is factually sketchy at best. But she continues to say it, and it continues to resonate with certain sub-groups. Why? And what can be done to counteract it?
Many of the comments and diaries here assume that the popular vote argument is aimed at the remaining superdelegates. Perhaps so, though they seem politically savvy enough to see through it. But it also taps into and strengthens deep veins of resentment within the two groups where Clinton continues to do well: older white women, and whites without a college education.
Follow me after the jump.
For older white women, Clinton's claim resonates with a narrative line that those of us over 50 can easily identify with:
I’m way more qualified for the job. And I’m winning the popular vote. But the men in the back rooms and the men on the teevee are moving the bar to keep the glass ceiling intact and prevent me from taking my rightful place. It’s the old story: a woman has to be twice as good as a man to get half as far. It's unfair and sexist, and we all need to stand up and say so.
For white workers without a college education, Clinton invokes a different narrative line, the affirmative action one that this year's anti-immigrant rhetoric has reawakened:
The white candidate is way more qualified for the job. Using any common-sense criteria, the white candidate would get the job. But then some folks in suits used a fancy formula that’s way too complicated for anyone to understand, and gave the black guy extra points on the test, and gave the job to him. It's reverse racism and it's unfair.
These narratives are dangerous. During the past couple of weeks the Clinton campaign has in other ways signaled a willingness to move toward unifying the party for the upcoming fight against John McCain. But resentment dies hard, especially resentment over yet another stolen election. Leaving these narratives in place creates two pools of anger that could fester for years, affecting the Democratic Party for many election cycles to come.
So, what can we do? Chuck Todd standing in front of his fancy touch screen and crunching numbers doesn’t really help, because it feeds both false narratives. He's a white guy, in a suit, using fancy formulas no one really understands. Tim Russert and other guys in suits insisting that the popular vote isn’t the right way to measure has similar flaws. Having Rachel Maddow say it may help a bit, but it still reeks of "those people" stealing what rightfully belongs to Clinton.
I suggest two new approaches:
First, it is essential to cut into the underlying premise that Clinton has won the popular vote. The clearest way to do that goes something like this:
When she’s talking about Florida and Michigan, Hillary Clinton keeps talking about how important it is to "Count Every Vote!" But when she says she’s won the national popular vote, she is leaving out the votes cast by the good people of Iowa, Maine, Nevada and Washington State. She’s NOT counting THEIR votes.
This has to be said slowly, matter-of-factly, not by media pundits in their cram-it-all-in rush. It would be more powerful coming from women’s voices.
Where are the elected officials, especially the women, from those four caucus states, irate and insulted that their people are being disregarded, as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Gov. Jennifer Granholm have been on behalf of Florida and Michigan? I assume they’ve feared that responding would only give credence to the "popular vote" argument. But it must be countered, and they would be the best people to do it.
This would plant a counter-narrative, one that is fully consistent with other criticisms of the Clintons: She makes these great-sounding statements, but here she goes again, she’s redefined terms in such a slippery way that it isn’t really true. We don't want to do that, not this year. We want a different kind of politics.
Second, the best way to counter the "affirmative action" narrative is with an equally strong counter-narrative: states’ rights.
The Democratic Party could force every state to hold its elections the same way. But we don’t do that. We let the Democrats in each state decide what works best for them, as they choose the people they want to send to the national party convention in Denver. There are states with long traditions of holding caucuses where everyone can come together and argue it out like a town meeting. There are states with long traditions of going to the polling place and voting behind a curtain. There are states with mail-in ballots. We don’t yet have a state that votes by Internet, but if a state Democratic Party decided to do that, the national Party would honor it.
So we’re not going to go back and tell states, "You chose this way to hold your election and allocate your delegates, but the national party is going to ignore that and make some other calculation." We’re going to accept the delegates the way each state chooses to select them.
That narrative too fits into the larger theme of this campaign: The Democratic Party is a big tent, with room for lots of different people. We need everyone's ideas and everyone's energy. We need all of you.
In order to win over enough of these two demographic groups to prevail over McCain in the fall, the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party has to recognize and reduce the resentment that Clinton has been able to foment. And all of us can help with that reframing.