It's high time we acknowledge that every candidate has an identity: a race, a gender, a cultural background. It may not make or break every voter's decision, but a candidate's identity is always an electoral factor -- even when that identity is white and male. Clinton's female supporters and Obama's black supporters don't get enough credit. They are making tough decisions on how to reconcile their political beliefs with their gut reactions upon seeing someone who looks like them up on the dais. In fact, all Democratic voters are wrestling with this. Very few Americans have ever had the opportunity to vote for anyone other than a white man for national office. After so many years with "white male" as the default political identity, we're all suddenly forced to think about how much a candidate's race, gender, and background should matter.
Let's make this election about the issues, everyone says -- and rightfully so. Our presidential nominee should be chosen primarily on the issues. But most of us don't separate issues from identity as cleanly as we'd like to believe. When it comes down to it, everyone is an "identity politics" voter. The problem is that phrase, as commonly used by right-wingers and some on the left who are tone-deaf on issues of race and gender, has the effect of cutting down the political choices and involvement of women, people of color, and gays and lesbians.
After all, Clinton and Obama and their supporters aren't playing "identity politics" any more than John Kerry's supporters did in 2004, or George W. Bush's did in 2000. It's absurd to suggest that the Andover-Yale-Harvard-bred Bush adopting a swagger and thickening his Texas accent, or John Kerry riding a borrowed Harley onto The Tonight Show set, was anything other than identity politics. And after several early primaries, as it became clear that white men most strongly supported John Edwards, nobody accused them of playing identity politics. Nope, that distinction is reserved for people who have historically not been in positions of political power. In short, you can't be a white guy voting for another white guy and still play the identity game.
See also me, back in November, on this same issue.