Infighting Worries Democrats
Split Between Backers
Of Clinton and Obama
Lifts Republican Hopes
By JONATHAN KAUFMAN
March 11, 2008; Page A4
The groups that for months have energized the Democratic campaign and have given Democrats high hopes -- blacks, women and young voters -- are increasingly sniping at each other, raising concerns that the battle could create problems in the November election.
More Republicans now say they are satisfied with Sen. John McCain than Democrats are with either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton.
About 75% of Republicans say they are satisfied with Sen. McCain, compared with 24% who say they are dissatisfied, according to an analysis of February and March exit polls by Public Opinion Strategies, which conducts the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. Among Democrats, 71% said they would be satisfied if Sen. Clinton becomes the nominee, while 28% said they would be dissatisfied; roughly the same number, 70%, would be satisfied with Sen. Obama; 29% dissatisfied.
Although Sen. McCain is benefiting from having clinched the nomination, there is a marked change from January, when 81% of the Democrats said they were satisfied with their candidates, compared with 57% of Republicans who said they were happy with their field.
"Their race is getting more bitter, and we are all coalescing behind McCain," says Tom Ross, a political strategist in California whose firm is working for Sen. McCain.
That isn't likely to change soon. In Mississippi, which votes today and where polls show Sen. Obama holding a substantial lead, about 12% of Democratic primary voters say they would never vote for Hillary Clinton, while 20% say they would never vote for Sen. Obama.
Some Democratic activists say the hardening attitudes are typical in an intense primary battle.
"As things become more competitive, people's language heats up a bit," says Ellen Malcolm, head of Emily's List, the women's fund-raising group, who supports Sen. Clinton. "After the convention, we will all come together. People on the Democratic side are highly energized to take back the White House."
Other Democratic leaders, including veterans of hard-fought contests, worry about the emerging divisions. "I am fearful; we are heading into uncharted territory," says Donna Brazile, who was Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000 and is now an uncommitted superdelegate. "Over the past few weeks, the mood and the tone has shifted. The Clinton backers are as adamant as the Obama people. The undertones [about race and gender] are the kind of cultural fault lines that lead to divisions. It is alarming and sickening."
Republican pollster Bill McInturff says the longer the race goes on, "there isn't much time to heal. If you have a party made up of a disparate coalition of race, ethnicity and gender, that is very precarious and can be a hard thing to repair."
Until recently, Democrats were buoyed by record fund-raising and record turnout in the primaries and by the belief that divisions among Republicans, especially between social conservatives and moderates like Sen. McCain, would weaken the party's chances in November.
Now, however, Democrats are confronting cracks among groups seen crucial to victory in November. Blacks, women and young voters all could play key roles in what is expected to be a close general election. Sen. McCain has also signaled his intention to compete for the Hispanic vote based on his support of immigration change and to woo blue-collar voters who have voted frequently for Republicans.
Black radio talk shows are ablaze with callers saying they will stay home in November if Sen. Clinton wins the nomination. Warren Ballentine, a nationally syndicated show host, says he has been flooded with calls and emails from African-Americans saying they won't vote for Sen. Clinton.
"If she would have won a few months ago, people would have been cool with it," Mr. Ballentine says. "But because of everything that has happened, African-Americans are getting to the point now that there is no way on God's green earth we are going to vote for her."
While few believe Sen. McCain will win large numbers of African-American voters, a fall in turnout would hurt. "Black voters are very similar to evangelicals," says Keli Goff, a black political analyst. If there's not an acceptable candidate, "we're more likely to stay home."
Anger is also appearing among women supporting Sen. Clinton. Connie Swanson, a teacher in Fort Worth, Texas, voted for Sen. Clinton in the primary and tried to recruit friends to caucus for her. "If Obama gets it, I'm voting Republican," she says. "I've watched all the debates, and I honestly don't get it. He's like a fantasy."
Betty Fung, a graduate student in Washington who supports Sen. Clinton, complains "the attacks on Hillary from the Obama side tend to be very personal attacks. They are not attacking her policies, they are attacking who she is." If Sen. Clinton wins the nomination, Ms. Fung says, she would volunteer to travel to other states to campaign for her. If Sen. Obama is the nominee, "I might help out locally -- if I had the time."
Supporters of Sen. Clinton also worry about young voters, male and female, who have turned out in large numbers for Sen. Obama. "Young students for Obama could stay home; that's one reason I am so furious at them," says Fran Reiter, former deputy mayor of New York and a Clinton supporter. "They are all excited about him, and they don't have any staying power. If Obama doesn't get the nomination, do they get angry again and crawl back into their apathetic hole?"
Republicans are gleeful. Six weeks ago, Shawn Fago, a Rudy Giuliani supporter and head of the Orange County Young Republicans, was despondent and looking enviously at the energy among his Democratic friends. Now, he has switched to Sen. McCain and says he is "super excited about how much disarray the Democrats are in. The best-case scenario is that this all goes to the convention and Hillary wins and all the Obama supporters feel disenfranchised and they stay home. It's beautiful."
--Amy Chozick, Elizabeth Holmes and Nick Timiraos contributed to this article.
Write to Jonathan Kaufman at email@example.com