West Virginia Primary Postmortem

Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama by a 2-to-1 margin (67-26) in West Virginia.

Hillary Clinton Wins West Virginia Chris Keane/Reuters Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton with her campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, in Charleston, W.Va.

Does this change anything? Probably not. One suspects Dick Cheney could have beaten Obama in this one. As impressive as Clinton’s string of victories in states dominated by white people with blue collars, there’s no evidence that her argument of “and therefore only I can win in the Fall” is gaining any traction outside the media. Indeed, Obama has been getting flooded with superdelegate defections during that streak.

What Clinton’s victory does do, however, is to give her a thin rationale for hanging on. And for the media to carry on with its prescripted story lines.

As is generally the case when Clinton wins one of these primaries, the attention is on race. Patrick Healy of the NYT writes, “racial considerations emerged as an unusually salient factor as Mrs. Clinton drew strong support from white, working-class voters who have spurned Mr. Obama in recent contests.”

He cites exit poll data which he extrapolates as “West Virginians are racist hicks.”

The number of white Democratic voters who said that race influenced their choice on Tuesday was among the highest recorded in voter surveys in the Clinton-Obama nomination fight. Two in 10 white West Virginia voters said that race was an important factor in their vote, and more than 8 in 10 of them backed Mrs. Clinton, according to surveys of voters leaving the polls.

Interestingly, the 9 in 10 black voters who chose Obama did so strictly on the merits. Indeed, 7 in 10 didn’t even realize he was black, they’re so color blind.

And, of course, the inevitable apples/oranges logic:

The voter surveys showing a strong racial component to the West Virginia voting suggest that Mr. Obama would still face pockets of significant Democratic resistance if he does become the party’s first black nominee. While he has argued that he could broaden the Democratic base in the fall, given his popularity with independents and his strong showing in traditionally Republican states like Colorado and Virginia, the Clinton camp has pointed to his modest support from white voters and blue-collar workers as weak links in his coalition.

My hunch is what these data really show is that West Virginians are more willing than most people to admit that race is a factor in how they view the world around them. How that translates into Democrats switching parties in the Fall, however, escapes me.

The West Virginia results offered some troubling signs for Mr. Obama. While exit polls in other states have indicated that many Clinton supporters, including many whites, would back Mr. Obama in the fall, more than half of West Virginia voters said they would be dissatisfied if Mr. Obama won the nomination, according to the voter surveys conducted by Edison/Mitofsky.

Memo to Mr. Healy: Those are entirely different questions. That the nearly 7 in 10 Democrats who showed up to vote for a surefire loser would be “dissatisfied” if the other guy won is not news, it’s axiomatic. There’s not much evidence to suggest that they’d be more satisfied with John McCain.

Obama supporters accused Mrs. Clinton of playing the race card last week when she explicitly said that she had more support among “white Americans” than he did. Yet however blunt she may have been, white and financially struggling voters in West Virginia — and in Kentucky, which votes next week and which Mr. Obama has all but conceded to Mrs. Clinton — have become a major force keeping her in the presidential race at this late stage.

Although not as major as the fact that she really, really doesn’t want to quit.

And there’s this gem:

As the Clinton campaign noted in a strategy memo on Tuesday, no Democrat has won the White House without winning West Virginia since 1916. Bill Clinton carried the state in 1992 and 1996, but Al Gore and John Kerry lost the state in 2000 and 2004, respectively.

To which Matt Yglesias retorts,

What’s even more interesting is that no Democrat has won the White House without carrying Minnesota since 1912 (it went for Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose party) so given that Obama won Minnesota and Clinton won West Virginia, McCain is guaranteed to win the general election unless the eventual nominee can somehow completely replicate the social and political conditions prevailing in pre-WWI America. The outlook, in short, is very grim.

Quite.

We only have presidential elections every four years and the circumstances surrounding each one are unique. This one will be spectacularly so in that there’s no incumbent president or vice president on the ticket, a senator is guaranteed to win, and we’ll either elect our oldest first-time president or our first biracial one. Further, both Obama and McCain defy the traditional molds their party candidates have fit into in recent years.

Will race be a factor in the Fall? Sure. It always is. In this particular case, Obama will likely motivate black turnout more than any recent candidate and, yes, he’ll probably run off some traditional Democratic voters. He’ll likely also attract some moderate whites who normally vote Republican. How that’ll all balance out is unclear.

As always, though, the election will be decided by a myriad of factors, at least some of which won’t even be on our radar screen until very late in the process.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Missouri, another bellwether state, has been carried by the winner in every presidential election since 1904 save the 1956 election in which Stevenson carried the state. Obama isn’t likely to carry Missouri this year.

  2. Bithead says:

    He cites exit poll data which he extrapolates as “West Virginians are racist hicks.”

    Funny thing; he didn’t level that charge when Obama caught 99% or so of the black vote in South Carolina. Here again comes the ‘racism can only flow in one direction’ nonsense. No shock, I suppose that the Times should be the source of this idea.

  3. Michael says:

    Funny thing; he didn’t level that charge when Obama caught 99% or so of the black vote in South Carolina. Here again comes the ‘racism can only flow in one direction’ nonsense. No shock, I suppose that the Times should be the source of this idea.

    There is a moral difference between lifting up someone who is like you, and dragging down somebody who is different.

    If people voted for Clinton because she is white, and so are they, that’s not racism. If they voted for Clinton because they didn’t want a black man to be President, that is racism. If they would rather vote for McCain despite disagreeing with his policies, just because he isn’t black, that is definitely racism.

  4. Bithead says:

    There is a moral difference between lifting up someone who is like you, and dragging down somebody who is different.

    If people voted for Clinton because she is white, and so are they, that’s not racism. If they voted for Clinton because they didn’t want a black man to be President, that is racism. If they would rather vote for McCain despite disagreeing with his policies, just because he isn’t black, that is definitely racism.

    A neat pin dance you’ve got there, Mike.
    Why would they want the black not to be president, if not for the sole reason of wanting the white to hold that office, more?

  5. FWIW, 67-26 is closer to 3-1 than 2-1.

    What are the no-spin standards for such rounding?

  6. Grewgills says:

    What are the no-spin standards for such rounding?

    5-2

    Bit,
    Do you really see no difference in African Americans voting to have the first African American president and whites voting to prevent it?

  7. Bithead says:

    Grew;

    Do you really not understand that either way, the votes were cast purely on the basis of race, which is by definition, racism?

  8. Michael says:

    Do you really not understand that either way, the votes were cast purely on the basis of race, which is by definition, racism?

    Using race as a selection criteria isn’t necessarily racism. If you need an actor to play Obama on SNL, choosing a black actor for the part isn’t racism. Choosing a white actor for the part because you didn’t want to use a black actor, solely because he was black, would be racism. Choosing a white actor because he was better/cheaper/more available than any black actors, would not be racism.

    Similarly, voting for people who are like you is not racism, it’s human instinct to want those who are most like us to be most successful, which is why white people voting for Clinton is also not necessarily racism.

  9. Michael says:

    FWIW, 67-26 is closer to 3-1 than 2-1.

    What are the no-spin standards for such rounding?

    The problem is the missing 7% (67+26=93%). Hillary only got just over 2/3 of the vote, meaning it was closer to 2 votes for Hillary for every vote not for Hillary (2-1). However, considering just the two, Hillary was closer to 3 votes for every vote for Obama (3-1).

  10. Bithead says:

    Using race as a selection criteria isn’t necessarily racism.

    rac·ism (rā’sÄ­z’É™m) Pronunciation Key n.
    1:The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.
    2: Discrimination or prejudice based on race.

    Note the second def.

    Using race as a selection criteria is discrimination by race, period. Whoa. Hold it. Alto. A’rret. Full stop. End.

    There’s no dancing around this one, Mike. Sorry. No sale.

    It’s almost funny; this level of equivocation was never had, even in the 60’s by conservatives. But when liberals get hoisted on this petard, it’s “let the dancing commence”.

    (Shake of the head)
    So much for the post racial era.

  11. Using race as a selection criteria isn’t necessarily racism.

    Do tell.

    oh, and the problem isn’t the missing 7%. It wouldn’t mater how much was “missing.” 67:26 is 2.5769:1. I was just wondering why that got rounded down to 2-1 instead of up to 3-1. Grewgills is correct about 5-2, but that might require too much math for the voting populace. It certainly would for the non-sportswriter reporting populace.

  12. Michael says:

    Voting for someone because you _like_ the color of their skin is not prejudice nor discrimination.

  13. Michael says:

    Do tell.

    Ok, maybe an analogy will help. During this year’s Olympic games, I will be hoping that the USA athletes win, for no other reason than because they are from my country. Does this mean that I am prejudiced or discriminating against Chinese people? I certainly wouldn’t think so, I have nothing against Chinese people.

    As for the “2-1”, I would give James the benefit of the doubt and assume that he saw Hillary winning 67%, and immediately recognizing that as the 2-1 threshold when there are only 2 options, not considering other names on the ballot.

  14. Bithead says:

    Voting for someone because you _like_ the color of their skin is not prejudice nor discrimination

    Unless that person is white, huh?

  15. Michael says:

    Unless that person is white, huh?

    Ok, so exactly which part of “If people voted for Clinton because she is white, and so are they, that’s not racism. ” are you having a hard time with?

  16. Bithead says:

    All of it.

    If the choice is being made based on race, that’s racism. What about that connection is getting by you?

  17. Michael says:

    If the choice is being made based on race, that’s racism. What about that connection is getting by you?

    Our definitions of “racism” don’t seem to be compatible then.

    I don’t consider a Christian who votes for another Christian because their religion to be anti-semitic, do you?