On Feb. 7, Hillary Clinton was in the midst of one of the lowest points of her campaign. She had barely won the caucuses in Iowa a few days earlier, despite starting out with a huge lead. And polls suggested that two days later, on Feb. 9, she would be soundly defeated by Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire primary.
Clinton made a bold move. Instead of staying in New Hampshire that Sunday, she flew to Flint, Michigan. There, the former secretary of state not only blasted Michigan officials for a crisis in which Flint’s residents were provided water with very elevated levels of lead, but directly tied the issue to race, arguing state officials would never have allowed this problem to develop in a wealthy, majority-white area.
Clinton was blown out by Sanders in New Hampshire. But her decision to repeatedly highlight the Flint controversy and its racial undertones-even though Michigan will not vote until March 8 — may have been one of the shrewdest moves of her campaign. It was one of many examples of Clinton and her team aggressively appealing to African-Americans, and black voters in turn overwhelming backed Clinton in Nevada and South Carolina, helping her win both states. She is heavily favored to win many of the southern states that will hold primaries on Tuesday, in part because of her strong support among African-Americans.
The 2016 campaign was expected to be largely a referendum on the presidency of Barack Obama and a debate about how to lift the stagnant wages of American workers. Instead, race and culture have emerged as huge factors, and Donald Trump and Clinton have become the leading candidates in part by figuring out how to speak about these divisive issues in ways that appeal to the bases of their parties.
At first glance, Trump’s campaign and those of his GOP rivals has seemed devoid of policy. The real estate mogul has only five policy stands listed on his website (veterans health care, taxes, immigration, international trade and gun rights), far fewer than Hillary Clinton or even Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
But conservatives are often uncomfortable with government solutions to problems, particularly ideas from the federal government. Unlike in the Democratic primary, there is little to be gained in the GOP race by having the most detailed tax or health care plan.
Instead, Trump has brilliantly addressed the concerns of conservatives who listen to talk radio shows, watch Fox News, and read websites like Breitbart.com. He casts Obama not only as too liberal, but as an incompetent person who never deserved to serve as the American president. Trump regularly uses the phrase “All Lives Matter,” in contrast to the protest movement that has emerged and invokes the importance of black lives. Last year, he blasted Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish in public, suggesting that was inappropriate for a presidential candidate.
Trump’s opposition to birthright citizenship and refugees coming from Muslim countries, combined with support of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico and the deportation of undocumented immigrants, are a direct appeal to people wary of illegal immigration, terrorism and Islam. His politics are a kind of identity politics aimed at white, Christian Americans.
In contrast, Clinton launched her candidacy with a video that included a gay couple holding hands, a black couple preparing for the birth of their first child and an Asian-American woman speaking about getting ready for life after college.
Clinton has campaigned to non-white voters in ways that even Obama did not. She has run unabashedly as the candidate who supports Black Lives Matter, openly embraces figures like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, says she will push very hard as president to get citizenship rights for undocumented immigrants and is very “politically correct” in the parlance of conservatives in her embrace of people who are racial minorities, from the LGBTQ community and practice non-Christian religions like Islam.
In the days before the South Carolina primary, she urged white Americans to consider their “privilege,” campaigned alongside black women whose sons and daughters had been killed in controversial altercations with police and implied Republicans have never treated Obama as a legitimate president, a view held by many blacks who feel racial animus has in part motivated the GOP’s obstruction of Obama’s agenda.
And over the last few weeks, Clinton’s campaign has dug up old quotes from Sanders in which the Vermont senator questioned some of the president’s policy decisions. This was a tactic aimed at creating a kind of racial solidarity contest: if Sanders had not been extremely supportive of Obama in the past, how could he expect black votes now?
Looking forward, if Clinton and Trump emerge as their parties’ nominees, as looks likely, they have set up a kind of contrast on racial issues that did not emerge even when a black man was running for president. Obama, in part because he is black, did not make racial issues the center of his campaign, even as voters in 2008 obviously had to decide if they were comfortable with an African-American president.
Mitt Romney and John McCain, running against Obama, largely avoided issues with racial undertones, even as McCain's running mate (Sarah Palin) in particular was more comfortable with such an approach.