West Wing Clinton Narrowly Ahead as Obama Fails to Clinch Center Ground

Hillary Clinton's narrow lead over Barack Obama shows that the center ground of American society is shrinking. She is finding it increasingly hard to clinch majorities. The old campaign adage that many minorities don't make a majority still applies. But for how long?

By Gabor Steingart

In her duel against Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton is narrowly holding on to America's center ground.

In her duel against Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton is narrowly holding on to America's center ground.

Barack Obama has powerful allies. The Kennedy Clan has lent him its halo. The media are banging his drum. Young people have lifted him to cult status with their applause.

But Barack Obama also has a powerful opponent he has so far been unable to beat: the middle ground of American society. The majority of that middle ground is still refusing to follow his message of change and hope. Converted into power, the most important currency of politics, that means that the senator from Illinois is strong -- but not strong enough -- to topple Hillary Clinton. She's ahead in the fight for the Democratic nomination, but her lead is narrowing.

Super Tuesday's primaries were fought along class lines. Obama mainly won over voters with annual incomes of more than $150,000 (€102,000). Clinton was ahead among people earning less than $50,000. Academics voted for him, workers for her. He inspired young people, while the elderly opted for her.

Try as he might, Obama is failing so far to win over ordinary people. It's hard to whip up enthusiasm among the down-to-earth voters of the center ground, people who are too preoccupied with the everyday problems of life to get swept up by Obama's grand pledge to turn over a new leaf in the history book. His message doesn't have much impact among them.

"Where's the Beef?"

These people aren't excited, they're worried. They're not content, but they have no desire for revolution either. You don't come across such people in the pages of American newspapers, but the real world is full of them. They're skeptical about politics, like the 50-year-old cashier in a bookstore in Iowa City. "I'll go and vote, but I'll vote for whoever doesn't ring my doorbell." They're political realists, like the plumber I spoke to in Washington, DC. "Change? Where is the beef?"

Or women like Pamela, 45, who expects more of a politician than pretty words. "I'm an African-American woman serving in the US Army," she wrote me in an e-mail. "Obama should wait eight years and stand for president when he has more experience and maturity. You can't pay bills by preaching hope."

Obama is inspiring millions of Americans, but there are also millions who find him too young, too smart, too smooth, too unscarred. He's hardly lived his life and already wants to take home the big prize. The modern part of the country may celebrate him as a pop star, but the majority is still listening to country music.

Harvard professors might support him, but in Massachusetts, the state surrounding the Harvard campus, Clinton won on Super Tuesday. Edward Kennedy is Obama's big supporter, while bestseller author John Grisham backs Clinton. The rich and famous climbed on stage for Obama in California, including Robert De Niro. But she managed to win over the ordinary people who go to watch his movies.

This is no campaign of left against right. This is a historic election in which the center of society is trying to stand its ground. The center is shrinking, in Europe as well as in America. Cities are growing; the provinces are shrinking. Not too long ago, American industrial workers accounted for a clear majority of the working population; now they've slipped to less than 20 percent.

Singles and single-parent households have established themselves alongside the classic family unit. The whites are still the majority, but America owes its continued population growth to Asians, Latinos and African-Americans.

Until now there was an iron rule for election strategists: Many minorities don't make a majority. The center ground decides. This might turn out to be the last presidential election where that rule applies.


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