Democrats and some media (MSNBC, for example) are rushing into the Trayvon Martin case as if it is an unalloyed political gift for Democrats and progressives. While it may help some Democratic office holders, it has the potential to be quicksand for many others, including President Obama. The benefits are likely to accrue to candidates running in largely African-American urban districts. The president and other candidates needing votes from suburban areas could suffer greatly from this case.
Al Sharpton, Lewis Farrakhan, and Spike Lee have all chimed in. It works for them. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain by keeping their names out front in these situations. The New Black Panther Party has even announced a bounty.
African-American members of congress from heavily black districts are using statements and stunts to show their support for Martin. Illinois congressman Bobby Rush has been ruled out of order on the House floor for wearing a hoodie. Many local officials with similar constituencies also have nothing to lose and are joining in.
It works for them because the traditional urban Democratic strategy is “us” vs. “them.” Ethnic politicians, like the Irish in Boston or African-Americans Coleman Young and Marion Barry played the role of protector. They argued that even if economic conditions had not improved on their watch it would be far worse if one of “those people” won the election.
This strategy works locally but it is a huge threat to other Democrats and, especially, the president. At the urban level, the standard democratic strategy succeeds because there are not enough “other” voters to offset gains from the target group. In a national election, the scenario is different.
Obama is running in the midst of economic difficulties. Even if the situation would have been worse without his actions, the economy will be a major issue in the campaign and a drag on his reelection hopes. Democratic consultant Bob Beckel believes that disposable income is the best predictor in presidential elections. Total employment, wages and housing prices are down since Obama took office. The decline in the unemployment rate is offset by the rise of gasoline and food prices.
America’s suburbs make the difference in national elections. Urban areas trend Democratic while rural areas trend Republican. The suburbs voted for Obama in 2008 and he needs that support to be reelected. He won election on two major points. The economic chaos preceding the election made it impossible for the Republicans to claim they were doing a good job on the economy and voters responded to his call for change.
Many white voters hoped the election of an African-American president would ease racial tensions. They assumed that with a President Obama and, as it turned out, Attorney General Holder African-American citizens would have reason to believe they would be treated fairly. The last thing these voters expected or wanted was a “long, hot summer” of racial disharmony.
The longer this drags on, the more the president and Democrats in general risk being seen as one-sided and trying to increase their vote by raising the passion among a single group of voters. It is likely that many people will be aroused in the opposite direction. There is additional danger in this case because George Zimmerman, the shooter, has a Peruvian mother. This is not a simple black-white case but can be portrayed as a conflict between minority groups. Who, then, is the “other?” Are Democrats going to be put in the position of choosing black voters over Hispanic voters?
In 2008, the voters went against the incumbent party’s candidate because of the economy. The skin color of the victorious candidate was irrelevant. In 2012, the incumbent president may well lose because of the economy. For most voters the skin color of the defeated candidate will be irrelevant.
A summer of racial discontent will lead to endless stories about “white fright” and how those unsophisticated white voters threw out a candidate because of his race. It will give those in the Democratic party who refuse to engage with their ideological opponents another “Willie Horton” explanation of their defeat. They will continue to blame others instead of trying to see what changes they need to make.
The average American wants solutions, not debates. They voted for economic and social change in 2008. They were disappointed in the amount of economic change. A worsening of the racial situation would only double their disappointment.
The state of the economy increases the chances of an Obama defeat. A summer of racial tension will either seal that defeat or make the margin larger. The risk to the nation and the Democratic party will be even worse. Only bad things can happen, for Democrats and the United States, if 2012 becomes “the year of the hoodie.”