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Clinton tangles with Obama in 'Oppression Sweepstakes'

  • Story Highlights
  • Spat between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is nothing new
  • 'Oppression Sweepstakes' took place in 19th century America
  • Voters aren't rational, one experts says
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By John Blake
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may be competing in the South Carolina Democratic Primary Saturday, but they're also vying for the top prize in another contest:

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Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama trade charges during the debate in South Carolina.

The Oppression Sweepstakes.

That's how Michael Jelani Cobb, an African-American historian, describes the surge of venom that recently erupted between the Clinton and Obama camps.

The sweepstakes kicks in when two excluded groups find themselves competing for the same prize. He says that took place in the 19th century when the abolitionist, Frederick Douglass and his ally, women's rights' activist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, argued over what group should first be granted the right to vote: black men or white women.

"Groups that are excluded are often concerned with other excluded groups getting ahead of them as opposed to keeping their eyes on the main issues," Cobb says. "You wind up with a lot of squabbling among the disempowered for the Oppression Sweepstakes."

The Obama and Clinton camps have squabbled over everything from each candidate's honesty, mysterious "hit jobs," and what candidate knows their civil rights history better. The anger, though, isn't restricted to their dueling campaign staffs.

It's also spread to some African-American women voters.

Several African-American women were recently angered when a CNN article suggested that some of them are torn between voting for Obama because he's African-American and Clinton because she's a woman.

Barbara Moore, international president of Zeta Phi Beta, an African-American sorority that claims 25,000 members, says those types of stories imply that she is part of a monolithic voting bloc that doesn't vote on the issues.

"There's this thought out there that we're not politically sophisticated enough to make decisions in the political arena," says Moore, who lives in Columbia, South Carolina.

Stereotyping voters can also misrepresent another group of voters-- evangelicals. Many people assume that evangelicals automatically vote Republican but the statistics don't bear that out, says David Kinnaman, an evangelical and author of "Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why It Matters."

Kinnaman, who is also president of a research company, says his firm has discovered that only little more than half of all evangelicals are registered Republicans. Young evangelicals identify with both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, he says.

"A lot of people who are not Christian automatically assume evangelicals are essentially a mobilized, politicized arm of the Republican Party," Kinnaman says.

Race, gender, religion -- it all seems too add a volatile element to what some people say should be a rational process. Yet those who think elections should just be about the issues are ignoring how people make pick candidates, one political scientist says.

Drew Westen, author "The Political Brain," says it's irrational to expect elections - or voters - to be rational. He says most people don't vote on issues. They vote on "gut-level feelings that focus on a candidate's personality rather than policy: Does this candidate share my values? Can I trust her or him? How do they stand on the one issue I really care about?

"A lot of decision-making is done outside of conscious awareness," Westen says. "Whether you find Hillary Clinton's criticism of Obama's experience compelling depends on your first gut level reaction to his style."

Those gut-level emotions don't simply come out in the voting booth. They can burst into public view when groups strive for identical political goals. Cobb, the historian, wasn't the only African-American scholar who evoked the nasty public dispute between Stanton and Douglass.

Beverly Guy-Sheftall, co-author of "Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women's Equality in African American Communities," also referred to the debate between Douglass and Stanton

Stanton and Douglass were both fiery abolitionists who parted ways over the passage of the 15th amendment, which gave black men the right to vote but not women.

Stanton, according to some historians, played the race card when she began competing with Douglass for the same right. During a public meeting in 1869, Stanton asked a crowd that included Douglass:

"Shall American statesmen... so amend their constitution as to make their wives and mothers the political inferiors of unlettered and unwashed ditch-diggers, bootblacks, butchers and barbers, fresh from the slave plantations of the South."

"This is an old saga -- the saga of race versus gender," Guy-Sheftall says. "It's very divisive and it's very emotional."

Andra Gillespie, assistant professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, says it's ultimately nave for anyone to expect that a race for the Democratic presidential nomination between Obama and Clinton would be polite because the stakes are too high.

"The reality is that politics is rough and tumble and that this was to be expected in this race," she says. "We wouldn't have batted an eye if two white guys running against each other raised these allegations." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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