I’ve never feared conversations about race. Today is no exception.
When a few people (translation: mostly white Republicans and white, Hillary-supporting-Democrats) complained that some African-Americans were voting for Obama because “he's black,” I laughed. If you've never had someone who shares your identity rise to exalted status, of course, you will give more benefit of the doubt.
Did it shock the conscious to see disproportionate support among Muslims for Keith Ellison, gays for Houston Mayor Annise Parker, Latinos for Bill Richardson, women for Hillary Clinton, or evangelicals for Pat Robertson in 1988? This, of course, doesn’t mean support from whatever “group” we originate is automatic. If it did, Alan Keyes would at least be an alderman somewhere and Clarence Thomas would be a beloved justice among African-Americans. (Shhhh! Don't tell him, but he’s not!)
Nobody can deny identity politics is more prevalent than ever (see this great article by James Poniewozik in Time on Sarah Palin), and as much as we want to declare America is post-racial, race remains a key identifier.
Democrats strive for, and with decent success, achieve racial diversity.
Republicans? Well, in his book Right Now, beleaguered RNC chair Michael Steele claims that “Republicans reject identity politics.” I’m assuming he wrote this ironically.
Republicans routinely engage in the practice, just not well. For example, they might elevate a not-particularly-savvy African-American to national party chair so they can criticize the black Democratic president. Or, they might make sure to get the one Asian guy and the one African-American woman in the crowd into the frame on the close-up. Watch for at least 30 seconds, and you'll know what I'm talking about). Or the Indiana GOP might front a guy on its webpage who they know they wouldn’t but for his ethnicity (though maybe youth as well, as age is an identifier).
Identity politics was going to be a political headache for Tom McKenna in his competition with Vop Osili to become the Democrats’ candidate for Secretary of State. But when Evan Bayh stepped down, things turned migraine.
Before going further, know that the Secretary of State position is critical politically. The Secretary of State is our tie-breaker for Speaker when the Indiana House of Representatives splits 50/50. As McKenna has argued repeatedly during his campaign, a D Secretary of State can stave off future Republican efforts to impose new burdens on voting that will likely prejudice Democrats at the polls in 2011 and beyond.
There are local effects as well. The party whose Secretary of State candidate garners the highest vote total in each county determines which party appoints precinct committee inspectors and which party is placed first on the ballot.
In Indiana, Democrats don't choose their Secretary of State candidate in a primary; they decide in a state convention (this year on June 26) populated by up to 2,288 delegate, with each county allotted a share based on an equation only slightly less complicated than the school funding formula.
When you look strictly at political considerations for those delegates, Vop has a formidable advantage.
In the 2008 general election, 381,000 votes were cast in Marion County, President Obama got 241,000 (or 63%) of those votes, and 135,000 (35%) of which were straight-ticket Democrat. Only Lake County delivered a higher percent of Obama votes (67%), and only four counties topped Lake's 70% turnout. In short, give Lake County the right candidate, and it performs. These two counties helped Obama become president while carrying only fifteen of Indiana's ninety-two counties. Given the high concentrations of black folk living in Marion and Lake, is it a stretch to hypothesize that African-Americans are the single best source of Democratic straight-ticket vote in Indiana?
Smart politicos maximize straight-ticket votes, so a savvy delegate might ask, this question:
"Which Democratic state-wide line-up delivers the high turnout, straight ticket (African-American) voters we need to keep our Senate seat now that it's going to be a battle royale without Evan Bayh? The one with Brad Ellsworth (white guy) for Senate, Tom McKenna (white guy) for Secretary of State, Pete Buttigieg (white guy) for Treasurer, and Sam Locke (white guy) for Auditor, or the one that gives African-Americans the chance to elect Indiana’s first black Secretary of State and put him in position to become Indiana's first black Lieutenant Governor?
(Hey, if Evan Bayh runs in 2012, he’ll need a running mate who can smooth African-American ruffled feathers from all his anti-Obama statements and votes).
Some may think I'm naive to not consider the "identity politics" downside for Vop, given the GOP's historic skill at running the campaigns of the type that can generate subconscious (or even outright) fear of Vop's name, race, heritage, or all three combined.
To those folks, I would say studying the 2008 election results certainly depressed me at first blush. Given ballot fatigue, we would expect Obama to be the highest vote getter across the board, even in the counties he lost, right? But he wasn't.
In seven counties where Democratic Attorney General candidate Linda Pence and Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate Dr. Richard Wood won and Obama didn't, both gained more total votes than Obama, even though fewer people voted. For example, in Fayette County, 9,457 people voted for President, and Obama got 4,389 votes, or 46.4% of the vote. Linda Pence polled 288 more votes than Obama (for 53%) in Fayette County, even though 681 fewer Fayette residents voted for AG.
This means that even in seven "Democrat" counties, Obama didn't poll highest at the top of the ticket, even as the first Democrat to carry Indiana since Lyndon Johnson.
But that's not all. Pence or Wood outpolled President Obama in a staggering 38 counties in which all three Democrats lost. (In contrast, where the President won, he was only outpolled by his downticket colleagues in three counties - Starke and Madison by Pence and Vermillion by Wood).
But then I realized something critical. In 2008, both Pence and Obama got 49% of the respective votes cast for their offices (President Obama actually won by a plurality if you don't round up). But statewide, the presidential contest drew 153,000 more voters than the AG's race did, and Obama outpolled Pence by 95,000 votes overall.
In contrast, in 2004, both John Kerry and Democratic Attorney General candidate Joe Hogsett had 40% of the respective votes cast for their offices. But statewide, the presidential contest drew 79,500 more voters than the AG, and Kerry had 15,500 more votes than Hogsett. In other words, Obama owned the overvote with 61%. Kerry only got 20% of his overvote.
If Indiana suffered from a pervasive and deep-seated race-based antagonism, I don't see how Obama would have done as well outpacing his national predecessors. At a minimum, we can say that the counties that went for Obama went all the way.
Of course, to suggest that just because Obama won Indiana, any African-American Democrat can do it minimizes the uniqueness of the decentralized Obama campaign and the President's formidable PR skill set. But at least it can be said that the political advantage from identity politics can clearly outpace any identity downside, whether it be perceived or actual for Vop Osili.
If you combine the delegates of all seven counties where both Pence and Wood won and Obama lost, it's only 79 total delegates. Even if you add all counties that either Wood or carried and Obama lost, you only get to 207.
You see, Indiana is populated with a lot of counties that Jesus couldn't crack 45% in if he came back and ran as a Democrat. And if no Democrat can win the county, a savvy county chair will likely persuade his folks to do what (s)he can to help the statewide ticket, including Brad Ellsworth, who will need every vote he can get, and the candidates for Indiana House of Representatives.
The two counties with the strongest African-American populations, Lake and Marion, have 547 combined delegates, or half of the total needed to clinch the nomination. If you add the 15 counties Obama carried, you get over 50% of the total needed.
In short, Vop doesn't have to be liked everywhere, just strongly liked in the areas where astute party operatives know he can boost turnout and benefit both the candidates above and below him.
I know and like both of the candidates, and this post isn’t intended as an exhaustive assessment of their relative strengths, or in Vop’s case, intended as a dismissal of the same because its focal point is on his identity advantage. It’s intended solely as a raw political analysis. (Of course, we'll probably get a good hint if I'm right when the campaign finance reports come out today, so stay tuned).
I will say I like Tom McKenna’s passion for the central issue of his campaign - voter protection. I also think from strictly a resume perspective, his lengthy government service puts him in better stead, and he definitely knows the state better right now and lives in GOP candidate Charlie White's backyard (Hamilton County), so he might make inroads in a GOP stronghold.
That being said, I have no reservations whatsoever about Vop being able to perform the SoS job based on his impressive business success and broad vision for the office. Plus, he doesn't need to wow Hamilton County. He just needs to run up the numbers in D strongholds.
Also, I have never begrudged somebody a political job because they're looking past it (and nobody thinks Vop would be content to be just a Secretary of State). Some of the best public service is rendered by people intent on executing their duties flawlessly to create a testament to their ability to manage a bigger office.
In sum, Democrats have two equally-matched and well-qualified candidates. Unfortunately for Tom McKenna, on the rare occasions when that happens, all that's left to break the tie is the politics.
UPDATE: I haven't studied the reports closely to see if there are any self-loans, big "insider" donations, or other tricks that candidates use to puff their reports, but Vop Osili raised $138,067 during the last reporting period to Tom McKenna's $115,049. However, Vop spent $69,489 to Tom McKenna's frugal $21,434, meaning Tom has $93,614 left in the bank to Vop's $68,577.
Both Democrats outraised the GOP candidate, Charlie White, who pulled in $52,067, spent $12,504, and has $39,563 c-o-h.