Analysis: Primaries Expose Party Divisions

This analysis was written by U.S. News & World Report columnist Gloria Borger.

When it was over--when the popular vote was counted and the delegates divided--the only post-Super Tuesday clarity to emerge was this: The Republicans and the Democrats are each dogged by demons that refuse to unite behind a candidate. Some conservatives, for instance, find John McCain so distasteful they have angrily proposed to either bolt the party, sit out the election, or, in some of the most extreme pronouncements (can you say Ann Coulter?), vote for Hillary Clinton instead. And in the Democratic Party, with a 46-year-old black man running against a 60-year-old white woman, the divides are opening up--on race, on gender, on age. Interesting, sure. But not pretty.

Pity the ideologues in the Republican Party who ponder the very likely prospect of John McCain as their nominee. Here's a fellow with a 72 percent approval rating among Republicans, according to a recent Pew poll, and yet some conservative die-hards still abhor him. The nation may be begging for a post-partisan leader, for a president willing to walk across the aisle to get something done, but never mind. Those who hate McCain do so precisely because they know that he would do that, as he did in his bipartisan efforts at immigration, campaign finance, and ethics reform. Their oxygen is supplied by the politics of division; any union with the Democratic enemy on anything is not only unwanted--it's heresy. McCain is deadly to them because he threatens their power by virtue of his brand of I'm-beholden-to-no-one politics.

Purity. And by the way, it's not as if McCain is a liberal. He opposes abortion rights, has promised not to put "activist judges" on the bench, has a record of voting 82 percent of the time with conservatives, and was for the surge in Iraq even before George Bush was. In fact, McCain staked his political career on support for the war and sending more troops to Iraq. But that's not good enough for these conservatives. He's not pure enough because he supported a campaign finance reform measure they consider a violation of the First Amendment. And, despite his antiabortion credentials, he supports stem cell research. Independent thinkers hardly ever do well on tests of ideological purity. McCain prefers to lead.

As for the Democrats, the internal divides so far are simmering, largely unspoken because they are so deeply troubling. Barack Obama never wanted to run mainly as an African-American presidential candidate, but Bill and Hillary Clinton turned him into one in South Carolina. All of that "fairy tale" talk from the former president, his insistence on comparing Obama's win there to Jesse Jackson's failed presidential bid (gee, could Jackson have won in Connecticut, Minnesota, or Kansas?) was intended to ghettoize the Obama candidacy. And it has had an impact: African-Americans are virtually united behind Obama. He won a huge majority of the black vote not just in Georgia, for instance, but also up north in Massachusetts.

The problem for Obama is that the Clinton calculation was not only to divide but to conquer: Latino voters (playing on the black-brown tensions in the party) and, of course, white women. Consider New York, Hillary Clinton's home turf: Obama beat her among black voters by almost 2 to 1. Yet Clinton won a huge 73 percent of the Latino vote to Obama's meager 26 percent. And, in an outcome that was repeated in her wins throughout Super Tuesday, she beat Obama with white women by about 2 to 1. In New Jersey, for instance, she did even better, winning 7 in 10 white women and three quarters of Hispanic voters. If Clinton is to be the nominee, she needs to continue to win big with these groups. In politics, the math can be strange: Division begets multiplication.

That's not the game Obama and McCain are playing. Both talk about appealing to America's greater instincts--and self-interest--by overcoming the demons that divide us. Much of the public wants to do the same thing. But the conservativ ideologues have a different agenda: their own power. They know McCain will not worship at their altar, no matter how much he tries to make peace with them. (And he will.) As for the Clintons, they just want to win. And as the Democratic race marches on--with party divisions growing only more obvious--the Clintons make another point: This is no time for a candidate who's not tough enough to take on the evil opposition. The only candidate man enough to do that, they say, is Hillary.
By Gloria Borger