How Hillary and Bernie’s New York adventure defines the Democratic race

With strength and sarcasm, last week’s debate in the Brooklyn Navy Yard between Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders hit peak New York attitude.

Besides the brashness, both contenders have claims to be New Yorkers. Sanders was born and raised in Brooklyn but hasn’t lived in the state for 48 years. Clinton moved there, like the millions who come to New York to make their mark. A whopping 37 percent of New York City residents today are foreign born, the highest percentage at any point in the last century.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Thursday. Lucas Jackson | Reuters | TPX Images of the Day

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Thursday. Lucas Jackson | Reuters | TPX Images of the Day

The New York campaign has its own flavor, yet it reveals a lot about the Democratic race.

Neither candidate has the Obama coalition of young voters and black and Latino voters.

Obama needed all of them to win the nomination in 2008 when he went up against Clinton, who was then initially favored to win the nomination. His campaign out-organized Clinton’s in registering voters and targeting regions in states to pick up the most delegates. Obama’s oratory, positive message and ability to attract impressive endorsements went up against a less competent Clinton campaign at a time when her Iraq war vote was more important to Democratic voters.

Even then, Obama’s win over Clinton in the pledged delegates, the ones won from primaries and caucuses, was not that large. He never had as large a lead as Clinton has now in pledged delegates. But Obama won because of his electoral coalition.

Now Clinton routinely wins black voters by massive margins all over the country and usually wins Latino voters by smaller margins. Despite Sanders having support from black intellectuals, largely because of Clinton’s past support for her husband’s welfare reform policy and crime bill (the latter of which Sanders voted for), Sanders does poorly with black voters. In Wisconsin, a state Sanders won with 57 percent of the vote, he received the support of only 31 percent of black voters.

In New York, Clinton continued to connect with these voters in places like black churches, a senior public housing project in East Harlem and at Co-op City, a housing cooperative in the Bronx with a population that’s 60 percent black and 28 percent Hispanic. Her long relationships with these communities, pragmatic bent, accomplishments like funding for lead abatement, and emphasis on opportunity and multiple sources of inequality resonate with these voters.

Sanders had lots of support from younger voters in New York. These have been his strongest group overall. It’s seen even where Clinton won landslides. Take Florida, which Clinton won two to one while Sanders got 64 percent of the vote from voters aged 18 to 29.

In New York, Sanders held big rallies with opening musical acts that attract young voters, like Vampire Weekend at his event in Washington Square Park near New York University. His messages about free college tuition, political and economic inequality, and large-scale transformation attract these voters.

While in many states young black and Latino voters support Clinton, that’s not always true. As New York Times reporter Farah Stockman notes, younger black voters are more likely to see Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill as “paternalistic and damaging” while older black voters who lived through the crime and crack epidemic tend to see it as worthwhile in stemming violence. One older African-American, relieved when the bill passed, noted, “My car got broken into every week. People were scared to walk down to the bodega, afraid they’d be followed and robbed.”

As the campaign goes on to more states with significant black populations, if those patterns hold, Hillary Clinton will continue to win most pledged delegates. Those delegates are the important ones, since superdelegates routinely go with the winner of pledged delegates.

Superdelegates are unimportant for determining the nominee except for magnifying existing majorities. Some Sanders supporters now claim that most superdelegates’ early support for Clinton depressed Sanders’ support, but there’s no proof. Moreover, it contradicts the claim, itself without evidence, that Sanders backers are more enthusiastic. It’s strikingly hypocritical that, after saying superdelegates shouldn’t decide the nomination, the Sanders campaign is hoping they will do so by supporting Sanders.

As Nate Silver points out, “Clinton is winning the states that look like the Democratic party.” After the nomination is wrapped up, what different groups of Democratic primary voters do depends on Sanders, Clinton, Obama and the Republican nominee. Most likely, the Obama coalition will come together once again.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.