When I used to read book after book about Democratic politics in the late 1960s (at first for my senior honors thesis in college, subsequently solely because I'm a big nerd), contemporary supporters of Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy and writers looking back with hindsight both would cite the dream of a transformational liberal coalition comprised of students, non-whites, and union voters--groups notable variously for their enthusiasm and their loyalty. But in the 40 years since an assassin's bullet took RFK, it's never quite come together: culturally moderate-to-conservative unionists first were drawn away by Richard Nixon and (to a much greater extent) Ronald Reagan, and then their numbers began to shrink. Students saw Hubert Humphrey as part of the problem, and I don't think Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale did a whole lot for them. Non-whites remained loyal to the Democrats, though in the last two presidential elections Hispanics began to drift back to the Republicans (both Al Gore and John Kerry drew about 10 percent fewer Hispanic voters than the Democrat did in the previous cycle). Eventually I think observers began to believe that these groups were to some extent mutually exclusive: union voters looked warily at non-whites, students and intellectuals disdained the culturally retrograde hard-hats, non-whites didn't trust anyone.
Only Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 really managed to come close to putting this dream coalition together--and even he needed Ross Perot's help to win. As white men and middle-income voters drifted away from the Democrats, Republicans won again and again; even the Democrats' growing success among college-educated voters and professionals, which continued through 2004, generally wasn't enough to win the White House.
But for Democrats who believe in the adage of "better late than never," Barack Obama's coalition through the Democratic primary season--the young, African-Americans, professionals and upper-middle class and wealthier Democrats--could represent good news indeed. Obama is expected to win today's "Potomac Primary" by virtue of his overwhelming support from black voters and his robust draw among the "knowledge workers" and college graduates who dot the communities surrounding Washington, DC. The same groups should help him in Wisconsin next week.
Now the question is whether he can unite what's left of organized labor, and start drawing the lower-income, less-educated white Democrats and Latino voters who have backed John Edwards and Hillary Clinton through the campaign. Some are skeptical, to say the least.
And here's where the Clintons, should they fail to reverse Obama's momentum in the next handful of contests and see their March 4 firewall eroded or even breached, will have a legacy-impacting choice to make. If they keep fighting to the convention, they could dig in the antipathy of these supporters for Obama and create an opening for John McCain in the same states--New Hampshire, Ohio, even New Jersey--where Clinton has staked her nomination hopes. But if they concede, and were Bill Clinton in particular to make a strong effort to sell these less well-heeled constituencies on Obama as an authentic champion for their economic interests, he'd have a chance to score the realigning November victory we all hope for.