Barack Obama’s great ethnic divide

For Barack Obama, California’s early presidential primary was too early. He ran out of time before he could make inroads with women and non-black minorities, who have been the base of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s support nationally and helped her win here Tuesday.

Exit polls conducted for the Associated Press and the national television networks show that Clinton built a huge lead among people who chose their candidate early in the campaign, but the decision was a toss-up among voters who made up their minds in the final three days before the election.

The survey’s results also suggest that despite Clinton’s victory here and her overall lead in the campaign, the primary-election calendar in the weeks ahead might favor Obama. The near-term schedule is dominated by caucus states, where Obama fared well on Tuesday, and states with large black populations, from Louisiana on Saturday to the regional primary next Tuesday in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Clinton’s next chance to turn her small edge into an insurmountable lead might come March 4, when Texas and Ohio vote. In those two states, her hold on Latino and working-class voters, if she maintains it, could be decisive.

It certainly was in California.

Clinton won here among women, as she has elsewhere, taking the female vote by a margin of 59 percent to 34 percent. Clinton and Obama ran even among men.

Obama won big among black voters, winning by a 4-to-1 margin. And he held his own among white voters, who were split evenly. Beneath that split was a gender gap, with Clinton winning big among white women and Obama doing just as well among white men.

But the deciding factor in the California contest was the voting of Latinos and Asian-Americans, who combined accounted for about 37 percent of the Democratic electorate.

Seventy percent of Latinos and 75 percent of Asian-Americans said they voted for the former first lady.

That ethnic breakdown could simply be reflecting the broader demographic split among the candidates. Clinton does better among poorer, less-educated Democrats, and Latinos in particular tend to fit that profile.

But there seems to be more going on. Among a slice of voters (16 percent) who admitted that the race of the candidates was important to them, Clinton prevailed by 62 percent to 36 percent. Among those who said race was not important, her margin was much smaller, 51 percent to 40 percent.

California’s result mirrors what seems to be a pattern nationally.

Obama is winning in many states where the Democratic electorate is heavily black or overwhelmingly white. On Tuesday he won in Alabama, Georgia and Delaware and in his home state of Illinois, but also in Colorado, Connecticut, Minnesota, Kansas, Alaska, Utah, Idaho and North Dakota.

Clinton won in more cosmopolitan states such as Massachusetts, New Jersey, California and her home state of New York, as well as in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

One theory is that Obama does well in states where the electorate is very white or mostly white and black but with few other minorities because there is less racial tension in those places. One reason many white Democrats support Obama is that he is not running as a “black candidate” but as a candidate who happens to be black. He has not run away from his race but neither has he made racial identity an issue central to his campaign the way Jesse Jackson did when he ran for president. Whites see Obama as someone who can heal the nation’s historic white-black racial divide.

In states with large Latino populations, however, there are often unspoken but very real political rivalries between the black and Latino voting blocs. In California, for instance, the number of blacks in the Legislature has declined as the number of Latinos has grown, and in many cases, political districts that used to be safe for blacks now routinely send Latinos to the statehouse. That tension might be one source of the Latino skepticism toward Obama.

But look at the result in New Mexico, where Latinos made up about a third of the Democratic electorate Tuesday. The race was too close to call on Wednesday, with a few hundred votes separating the candidates. Obama’s showing can be attributed to the fact that he was running even with Clinton among women.

But he also was running at least a little better among Latinos than he has just about anywhere else. Clinton’s edge among Latinos was still huge — 59 percent to 34 percent — but it was significantly smaller than it was in California.

What makes New Mexico unique? It has a large Latino population — and almost no blacks.

So in the weeks ahead, Obama figures to have the edge until March 4, when Ohio and Texas vote. Ohio has a large black population and relatively few Latinos, which should favor Obama. But it is also heavily unionized and working-class with a troubled economy, which would favor Clinton.

The decision in Texas, meanwhile, might come down to a question of whether Latinos in the Lone Star State are more like Latinos in California or those in New Mexico.

(Daniel Weintraub can be reached at dweintraub(at)