This is not a question to be asked lightly. Hillary Clinton's campaign has done nothing remotely close to George H.W. Bush's Willie Horton ad of 1988. Her campaign has not explicitly said that a vote for Obama will result in the rapes of white women or hordes black hoodlums in our streets. But if we examine what her campaign did say explicitly, then we can draw the conclusion that racist impulses in Appalachian voters were, shall we say, encouraged. And that is not a charge to throw around lightly, either.
Let me try to explain.
I was openly wondering why there was such a difference in results between Kansas and Kentucky. Kansas was a big victory for Obama. Kentucky was a landslide victory for Clinton. Both states are over 90% working-class caucasian. Both states are in the heartland (Kansas more so). Both states are predominantly Christian, specifically Protestant. Both states are almost assured to vote for John McCain this fall. But both states have independent voters, who have tended to favor Obama in the primaries. So what happened? My girl chimed in: "There's a big difference between Kansas and Kentucky."
Indeed there is. What is it with Appalachia? I found two great posts from Driftglass and LowerManhattanite. Both are outstanding, even if Drifty is a little bitter. But he has history on his side. The inherent racism of white Appalachia is well-documented, and it is a shameful history. It is the birthplace and legacy of Jim Crow.
Enter Senator Hillay Clinton's campaign into West Virginia and Kentucky. For months (since March, I believe) Clinton, her advisors, spokespeople and campaigners have been making the argument that Senator Clinton is more electable against John McCain in the general election. The reasons for this argument seem clear. Clinton is a major brand name. Middle America hardly knows Obama. Clinton is a more conservative Democrat, known for taking a stand against violence in video games, a stand for the war in Iraq, and a brief stand against flag burning. More electable, sure. But when the campaign entered West Virginia and Kentucky, the 'more electable' argument underwent a subtle transformation. Analysts can point to a single Clinton quote in Kentucky back on May 7th:
"I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on," she said in an interview with USA TODAY. As evidence, Clinton cited an Associated Press article "that found how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."
Clinton only said "white Americans" once, but it was enough to plant the theme that she was on the side of "hard-working", white voters, while Obama, somehow, was not. Essays and books have been written that decode the use of "working" or "hard-working" in addition to the word "white people" or "white Americans." It implies a lot in just a few words. White people work hard. People who don't look like them presumably don't work hard. Cenk Uygur explains further:
The second way they gave their voters permission to be racists is by using thinly veiled code words like, "I'm looking out for people like you." The very thin veil on these code words was lifted when Senator Clinton flat out said she was looking out for "hard working white Americans." And presumably Obama wasn't. And why is that? You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand the implication that he wasn't looking out for people like them because he wasn't one of them.
So, when the voter in Kentucky stepped into that booth, he didn't necessarily think, "I'm going to vote against Barack Obama because he is black and I'm racist." He thought, "Hillary Clinton is looking out for people like me. Obama cares more about his own people. And besides which he's going to lose in the general election because who would elect a black guy as president?"
This is the art of encoding and decoding in communication. It was subtle and effective, not blatant and egregious. Clinton's campaign didn't run a TV ad darkening Obama's face (a-la OJ Simpson on various TV networks) or try to make white voters frightened of Obama. It was more of an arm around their shoulder - a reminder that Clinton can be trusted because she connects with poor and working-class white people who don't have college degrees (Obama's support among college-educated whites is very strong, by the way). It was almost as if Clinton's campaign was saying, "Look, we know Obama's support among blacks is very strong. They side with him because of his race. It's OK for you to vote with Clinton because she is white. They are doing it, so we can do it too. And since we are the majority in this country (the silent majority, perhaps, like Reagan's supporters), we know we can override their votes and beat their candidate. It's white people like you who will decide this election."
Ampersand, over at Atlas Blog, compiled an excellent sampling of how the Clinton quote was interpreted, and it is clear that it worked as intended. Elrod has a similar summary of how "hard-working" plus "white" made her comment a classic, southern 'dog-whistle' moment. We coffee-drinking, urban, liberal intellectuals aren't making this up. Clinton delivered a specific, encoded message to the white voters of Kentucky on May 7th. She gave them a green light to vote against the black man on the basis of racial prejudice.
That's a much different message coming from a Clinton, a member of a family that might not have enjoyed two terms in the White House if it wasn't for a solid base of support among African Americans. Listen to the Clinton quote again, straight from Clinton's teleconference with USA Today. Note how she makes sure to say "hard-working." It seems to be a carefully-chosen word by her campaign.
One of the problems I perceive with this tactic is that black Americans are not voting for Obama solely because he is black. The driving force behind Obama is his charisma, the promise of dramatic change, and the fact that he is slightly more liberal than Clinton and against the occupation of Iraq. Those qualities have attracted more votes than Clinton nationwide. But Clinton's strategists and managers must have thought that they had an opportunity to exploit a large population of people who deep down, don't want to see a black man become president. They tapped into it, and it has worked in Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
To her credit, Clinton later told CNN/Time that she regretted that remark. But that was after she had won Kentucky.
Cenk Uygur and E.J. Escow explain this conclusion, that Clinton gave voters in West Virginia and Kentucky permission to vote on their racial prejudices.
Keith Olbermann and Dana Milbank discuss the Clinton quote the week it happened.