As expected, Hillary Clinton is winning the Kentucky Democratic primary by a wide margin. Her apparent landslide victory there is reigniting discussions about Appalachia and Barack Obama. Since the beginning of March, when Clinton snapped her long losing streak, all of her key victories have come from Appalachia (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky).
Turn on cable television, and you'll hear pundits concluding that Barack Obama is losing ground with white voters. Or you'll hear Terry McAuliffe triumphantly claiming that voters are warming to Hillary Clinton's message and stances on the issues. Or you'll hear an unintelligent discussion about race.
However, the heart of the matter is far more complex (and thought-provoking) than the majority of talking heads have declared it to be.
NBC's Chuck Todd offered some of the best analysis I've seen earlier this afternoon (evening on the east coast) when he told Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews that the only tool needed to predict how the Democratic primaries will turn out is the United States Census. Wherever there's a significant black population (states in the Deep South, for instance) or very small black population (as in much of the West) Barack Obama tends to win, and win big.
But where the black population is in the middle - high single digits, or low double digits - Hillary Clinton has fared surprisingly well. And those states are concentrated in (surprise, surprise) Appalachia.
So what explains this phenomenon? Here's a guess that may explain it (again, with a hat tip to Chuck Todd), but before I elaborate, let me offer a disclaimer.
This has been a groundbreaking election cycle and an unprecedented presidential race. The political landscape is incredibly sophisticated, with many different factors influencing the election results. It's tough to decipher and analyze, because there are no neat and simple patterns.
Any theory an observer can offer is going to have its share of exceptions, some magnified by the length of this nominating contest. So please don't interpret this as a definitive, indisputable assessment of the situation.
With that said, let's get back to the question: what might explain this phenomenon?
First, we know that black voters are breaking strongly for Obama - as much as 80% or even 90% percent in many areas.
In the states where blacks comprise a significant percentage of the Democratic constituency, this means Obama has a strong and unwavering base of support, which, combined with other demographic groups, has put him over the top...not by enormous margins, but respectable ones.
Second, in states where the black population is a very small percentage of the Democratic constituency, Obama has also done extraordinarily well. Look at the Midwest or our home, the Pacific Northwest. The exception is the Southwest, where Hillary Clinton has enjoyed support from Latino voters.
A reasonable explanation for this is that states in regions like the West and New England don't have a long history of racial tensions between blacks and whites.
It's understandably easier for white voters in those states to be open-minded about Obama's candidacy for president. Yes, affluence and education are factors, but ultimately what it comes down to is geography.
The election results have borne this out.
Where there has historically been racial tension, fewer white Democrats have voted for Barack. And where he can't compensate for that with support from the black community, as in Appalachia, he has lost. In the case of West Virginia or Kentucky, which his campaign did not strongly contest, Obama lost big.
In the case of Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio, he did better, either because those states were closer to his home base in Illinois (where he is well known) or because he spent time campaigning there. Or both.As DHinMI notes
Beginning with Super Tuesday and then the Potomac primary, the pattern became clear: many counties of Appalachia have voted by margins of over 2 to 1, and sometimes even 9 to 1 for Hillary Clinton. It's inescapable that race is playing a factor in some voting everywhere, but that it's a much greater factor in Appalachia than anywhere else in America. Only in Appalachia has Hillary Clinton won huge margins. As I've written before, Obama does not appear to have a problem with white voters. However, Appalachia has a problem with Obama.
As a candidate, Obama has talked of nothing but equality, nondiscrimination, freedom, and opportunity. Those have all been values central to his campaign. Obama doesn't have a problem with uneasy white voters in Appalachia; rather, they have a problem with him
. And that problem may be an unconscious one.
My guess is that this key group of white voters who are making the double digit difference for Hillary Clinton are simply uncomfortable voting for someone who isn't white for the highest office in the land.
Notice I used the word uncomfortable. These are Americans whose hearts and minds can be swayed.
That's all the more reason for Obama to spend time in Appalachia building as many bridges as he can.