This article appeared in the Sunday Herald, on March 2, 2008.
Political momentum is traditionally measured in demographic trends, primary results and telephone surveys. It shifts so capriciously, often hinging on a flash of emotional candour or an unexpected endorsement, that its reliability as an indicator is dubious at best. But sometimes, you can feel it, flowing or ebbing away. In Dallas this week there was no escaping the impression that Barack Obama has it and Hillary Clinton does not.
You could hear it in the spontaneous shouts of “yes we can” at Duncanville High School, where 2,500 people crammed into a basketball arena and another thousand listened outside. It was carried in the cries of “Barack” from one side of the auditorium, affirmed by the “Obama” yelled in response.
This rally was small by Obama standards, dropped into the schedule between bigger official events in Ohio and South Texas. It was only announced the day before, but here in the poor, predominantly African-American suburbs of South Dallas, one day was word of mouth enough.
The public address system played civil rights soul, barely audible through the buzz of anticipation. Jackie Wilson’s love lifted him Higher And Higher, Curtis Mayfield urged the children to Move On Up, the Staple Singers promised I’ll Take You There. When Nevada Congressman Richard Perkins introduced “the next President of the United States of America” the cheap microphone on my tape recorder was overwhelmed by the white noise of hysteria.
Obama’s speech was the next song on this soundtrack, an anthem about faith, determination and transcendence through unity that very deliberately presented his candidacy in the context of the great moral struggles of the 1960s. It had a driving beat of optimism and a chorus his older listeners could sing along to.
He borrowed from King here, Roosevelt there, Lincoln too, incorporating them all into his simple message that “nothing worthwhile in this country has ever happened unless there was somebody willing to hope.” To his detractors this is the hollow rhetoric of a salesman infatuated with his own product, but there is no denying its effectiveness. The inspiration was deafening.
“Hope is how slaves and abolitionists resisted that wicked system,” Obama said. “It’s how the greatest generation defeated fascism, it’s how women won the right the vote, how workers won the right to organise, how young people travelled south in the sixties – and some marched, some sat-in, some were beaten and some died for the cause of equality. That’s what hope is.”
He has been delivering the same speech for a year now, but even his most ardent supporters can scarcely have imagined that so many voters would buy it. One million people have now made a donation his campaign. “This is our moment, this is our time,” he declared, “and if you will stand with me we will not just win Texas, we will the presidency and we will change the world.”
When the applause finally died down, Obama invited questions from the floor. A middle-aged white woman near the back asked “Who do you want for Vice-President?” His reply was a mild rebuke: “I’ve not won the nomination yet.”
While Obama fired up his urban supporters, Hillary Clinton was mobilising hers in the Hispanic heartlands of South Texas and the blue-collar towns of Ohio, where she still has a lead in the polls. Bill Clinton was dispatched to less favourable territory, to exercise a patronage network cultivated over decades and counter Obama’s star power with his silver-smooth charisma.
On Tuesday, he spoke at Grauwyler Park, a suburban sports field in North-West Dallas. It was the first of six events scattered across the city, a day of fortifying hugs for a grassroots operation in shock. In recent weeks, first inevitability then parity has evaporated.
An impressively diverse crowd of young and old, black, white and Hispanic had come to hear Clinton speak, but they covered barely half the grass beside a basketball court. It was a crisp, sunny morning, the organisers had laid on a mariachi band, free breakfast tacos and the most popular Democrat president since Kennedy. Fewer than three hundred people turned up.
The curious and uncommitted had stayed at home. These were Clinton loyalists with painted faces, carrying banners, photographs for signing and copies of Bill’s autobiography. As we waited, I asked them why they had chosen Hillary. The answer was always the same, always experience. It is an argument that, fairly or unfairly, Clinton has already lost.
Senior citizen Virginia ‘Cookie’ Nicolett said “Obama is promising too much and he can’t deliver.” Fellow retiree Rudy Longoria told me “talk is good, but action is better.” Shane Hall, a much younger man, said he was worried voters had been “caught up in the hype” surrounding Obama, adding that “people need to think more with the brain instead of the heart.”
Only Milo Alaniz, a Mexican butcher, strayed from the script. “I guess we need a lady to clean the White House,” he grinned. “Only a woman can do that.”
It began to get colder, as the sun ducked behind a cloud. The chants of “Hill-A-Ree” grew faint. Clinton’s Texas campaign director Mike Trujillo threw Marc Jacobs t-shirts into the audience and earned a cheer with the day’s best line: “Some campaigns talk about being fired up and ready to go. We’re talking to Americans who have been fired and have nowhere to go.”
A tiny, indefatigable Latina three rows in front of me promised her neighbours “a victory party with tamales and tequila” and shouted for “El Rey” – the king – until she was hoarse. “He’s always late, it’s his trademark,” Cookie whispered.
When Clinton finally arrived, he gave the standard stump speech – healthcare, the economy, aggressive diplomacy – and promised a return to halcyon Democrat days. “If we win Texas, we will win the nomination,” he said. “If we win the nomination we will win the White House. America will enjoy years of prosperity even better than when I was President, if you only give her a chance.”
Although he never mentioned Obama by name, he closed with a sceptical reference to his message of hope: “The argument being made by the other side is that the only way you can change America is to eliminate from consideration for the presidency anyone who did anything good in the 1990s or the last decade, that somehow, miraculously, the less you were involved in making something good happen the more likely it is to be good in the future. Now just think about that.”
The Texas primary was supposed to be a dead rubber. Political reporter Dave Levinthal, from the Dallas Morning News, told me that “a few people were predicting ‘watch out, it might be close enough for Texas to matter’ but no-one took them seriously.” The Clinton and Obama campaign offices here only opened two months ago. “Now people are practically salivating over the opportunity to play a meaningful role.”
As Bill Clinton observed in his Dallas address, “Texas is the only place in America where you can vote twice without getting arrested.” After the polls close on Tuesday, voters will take part in ‘precinct conventions’ to elect delegates to the state convention, which in turn sends representatives to the national convention. These caucuses determine a quarter of the total delegates, but the results won’t be known until June.
This is the first of several factors that make it extremely difficult for Clinton to claim the decisive victory she needs. Obama has won every caucus state so far, thanks to a highly motivated young team of volunteers that has consistently outflanked Clinton’s organisation on the ground.
The second hurdle is the division of congressional districts, which means that even if Clinton wins a bigger share of the popular vote, she is unlikely to earn substantially more delegates than Obama. Most districts elect four delegates. Winning three of them requires a 62.5% landslide
In the 1990s, Republican gerrymandering split African-American neighbourhoods into pieces to dilute the black vote. Democrat Governor Ann Richards protested that they had “carved up this state like a non-union meat cutter working on a one-legged turkey.” To avoid accusations of blatantly disenfranchising minorities they made one large district in each city almost entirely African-American.
Delegates are allocated according to Democratic voter turnout in previous elections. In the populous African-American districts of State Senators Rodney Ellis and Royce West, 13 delegates are at stake. In the Hispanic districts represented by Juan Hinojosa and Eddie Lucio Jr, far fewer people participated last time, so just seven delegates are available.
Texas is Clinton’s ‘firewall’ because 37% of its Democrats are Hispanic. In California, Hispanics preferred her over Obama two to one. Latino loyalty to the Clintons runs deep in the border towns of Brownsville, Laredo and El Paso. But there is reason to believe that she cannot rely on it to carry the state.
California was no fluke, but she has never repeated her dominance there. On the same day, in Connecticut, Obama won a majority of Hispanic votes. The margins have narrowed, primary by primary, to the point at which Clinton’s last reliable demographic group is no longer the banker it used to be.
In Texas, she has the backing of veteran politicians from the League of United Latin American Citizens plus respected community leaders such as former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros and Congressmen Silvestre Reyes, Henry Cuellar, Ruben Hinojosa and Solomon Ortiz.
But Obama has been recruiting influential Hispanic supporters of his own, headed by Roberto Alonso, the leader of Mexican American Democrats. Ambitious young State Representatives Rafael Anchia, Norma Chavez, Dora Olivo, Juan Garcia and Eddie Lucio III (the son of prominent Clinton supporter Eddie Lucio Jr) have all campaigned on his behalf.
Obama’s Spanish-language advertising campaign seeks to exploit this generational divide. The latest commercial begins with him rather clumsily announcing “Soy Barack Obama y apruebo este mensaje” – I approve this message. A smiling Latino family then discusses the tuition grants he proposes for students who can’t afford higher education, before the pay-off: “Con Obama, una nueva oportunidad.”
At the Bill Clinton rally, former city councillor Ricardo Medrano told me that “the older Hispanics remember where the Clintons have been, in the trenches with us, so they’re telling their children ‘we need these kind of people.’ This generation looks up to the parents.” Hillary needs him to be right.
Outside Duncanville High School, entrepreneurs were doing a brisk trade in extra large t-shirts proclaiming “our moment for change is now”. Chrystal Hays, a 43-year-old white woman festooned with Obama badges, was overawed by what she had just witnessed. “The feeling is like being a child and everything is wrong,’ she said, “maybe you’re lost and the world is ending and then suddenly somebody you trust comes up and says ‘I’m here, it’s gonna be OK.’”
Teacher Joan Bouldin, who canvassed for Jesse Jackson in 1984, told me Obama is a potent symbol of progress. “My mother used to walk door to door just to get black people to vote for progressive white candidates,” she said. “I have no shame in feeling pride as an African-American. I think about my mother and feel that this is probably what she was working for.” Sam Allen, a 60-year-old candidate for Sheriff, compared the excitement to JFK’s run for President.
In the first week of early voting, almost fifty thousand people from Dallas County cast ballots in the Democratic primary, ten times as many as at the same point in 2004. There is no knowing who has benefited from this surge, but the grassroots energy is clearly Obama’s. In a direct, like-for-like comparison of rallies, the week before I came to Dallas, he attracted seventeen thousand people on a Wednesday afternoon. Two days later, in the same downtown area, Clinton could only raise a thousand supporters.
The Texas primary was supposed to be Clinton’s Alamo, but Ohio is a better place to make her last stand. Deadlocked opinion polls suggest an extremely nervous evening for both campaigns on Tuesday.