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