The “Sister Souljah moment” is a revealing pundit’s fallacy
Eternal demands that Democratic politicians appeal to the Only Voters That Really Matter (i.e. white voters) by criticizing a powerless Black person or group are premised on the idea that whatever you think about what Clinton did, it was politically effective. As with most messaging just-so stories, one problem is that there’s no actual evidence for that:
Joe Biden needs a “Sister Souljah Moment.” At least, that’s according to the quickly congealing conventional wisdom in Washington. That is, Biden and Democrats are in dire danger of losing control of Congress next year, and the one thing that could save them would be by bashing someone to Biden’s left on matters of race.
The latest call came from Max Boot at the Washington Post, but he’s hardly the only columnist to make such a plea. Earlier this month, Kyle Smith at National Review called upon Biden to denounce critical race theory as a Sister Souljah Moment. Jacob Heilbrunn at National Interest made the same request. George Will urged Biden to have a Sister Souljah Moment back in August of 2020 to distance himself and his party from the “Defund the Police” crowd. Mostly, these calls are coming from conservative anti-Trump voices, seeking to make Biden and Democrats more conservative on race and, theoretically, more acceptable to the general population.
It seems to be an article of faith that this sort of tactic is a crucial one for Democrats, particularly as the party appears to find itself on the backfoot in the culture war. But the polling evidence suggests no such thing. In fact, the move could backfire on Biden by alienating a core part of his base.
It is striking the degree to which the Sister Souljah Moment has been accepted as a viable and reliable strategy for white Democratic politicians. As with many electoral narratives, it is rarely tested with hard evidence. But if we actually look at Clinton’s polling surrounding the events as they happened, it’s difficult to perceive a Souljah effect.
Trial-heat polls from the summer of 1992 show a rather complex and dynamic political environment. Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination at the beginning of June. Souljah spoke at the Rainbow Coalition event on June 13th, and Clinton gave his speech condemning her the next day. Clinton named Al Gore as his running mate at the beginning of July, and the Democratic Convention was held in mid-July. Further complicating things was the quixotic third-party candidacy of Ross Perot. The independent businessman was at the height of his popularity in June, actually leading the presidential field for several weeks. However, thanks to increased media scrutiny, his popularity faded, and he withdrew from the race (temporarily, it turned out) in mid-July. Teasing out the consequences of a single episode is therefore difficult, but some conclusions can be drawn.
The trend, shown in the chart, suggests that Clinton became slightly more popular at the end of June. Is that because he criticized Souljah? Possibly. Is it because Perot’s popularity was waning? Probably. Are we talking about pretty modest changes anyway? Definitely.
Clinton would go on to become much more popular in July after Perot’s withdrawal, and with the unifying message of a successful Democratic convention, he pulled into the polling lead in mid-July and never lost that lead for the remainder of the contest. Clinton went on to defeat Bush by 6 points in the popular vote.
It tells us a lot about a pundit when they cite this trivial incident as THE deceive factor in the 1992 campaign despite the lack of evidence that it materially affected the race.
The even grosser version was presented to us recently by (natch) Bret Stephens:
It’s been nearly 30 years since then-Gov. Bill Clinton took a break from the campaign trail to oversee the execution of death-row inmate Ricky Ray Rector. Morally, it may have been repugnant to kill a man so mentally handicapped by a failed suicide attempt that he set aside the pecan pie of his last meal because he was “saving it for later.”
Politically, it was essential.
There is absolutely no reason to believe that an execution that happened nine months before Clinton won the Electoral College 370-168 after winning 37 states in the primaries was material to the results of either. None. Choosing to focus on particular incidents — one an act of grotesque cruelty — as “essential” factors in campaigns that were not close tells us a great deal about the pundits invoking them and very little about what Democratic campaign strategy should look like.