Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama has moved heaven and earth to keep race out of his campaign. He had no choice. He knew that if he gave even the faintest hint of a tilt toward black voters his campaign would be DOA. While early polls consistently showed that a crushing majority of whites said that competence, ability and experience, not race, are the only things they consider in voting for a candidate, he also knew that race still might be the great X Factor for him in the presidential contest.
Privately, many in the Obama camp worried that many of the whites who loudly professed to be color-blind might develop collective amnesia on Election Day and punch the ticket for McCain. What they didn't consider was that many white Democrats would punch the ticket for Clinton instead, and then make it clear that if she didn't win they'd stay home or punch the ticket for McCain.
The overwhelming rejection of Obama by blue collar, rural, and non-college educated (and many college educated whites too) in West Virginia, all Democrats, is no longer cause for private worry for Obama but grave public fear. It follows close on the rejection of Obama by blue collar whites in Indiana, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Ohio. The pile of racist incidents that plague the Obama campaign, and the continued narrowing of his base to blacks, students, and upper-crust college educated whites are further strong cautionary warning signals for him and the Democrats.
Team Obama counters that he can snatch blue collar white Democrats and thus is electable with these three arguments. Obama won five of 12 primaries that included Wyoming and Idaho with a majority of white votes. He has gotten out front on the racial issue by mildly acknowledging that some whites won't vote for a black man yet that hasn't slowed his campaign. And, that the economy is in such lousy shape, and voters are so disgusted with their economic hurt and blame Bush for it, that this will trump the residual racial fears and distrust among Hillary Democratic blue collar whites toward him. The three arguments are shaky at best.
In exit polls in the key states he lost and even the one that he won, North Carolina, whites by double digit figures that ranged as high as twenty five percent in Ohio and Pennsylvania, flatly said that color does matter, and that means they are unlikely to vote for Obama. And, these are all Democratic voters.
The five states he won, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Kansas, and Nebraska are not in play for the Democrats. Republicans outnumber Democrats in these states by lopsided margins. The states that he lost and even possibly the one he won, North Carolina, are far different. They are in play for the Democrats. If he loses them his chance of bagging the White House is nil.
The argument that Bush has so mangled the economy that scores of Hillary Democrats will ultimately back him makes some sense. Polls consistently show that Americans, no matter what color, are anxious, fearful, and angry about the economic meltdown. And many do finger point Bush policies for it. But in nine of eleven opinion polls in the 2004 presidential election, voters also said that the most important concern for them was the economy. In some cities and counties in the crucial battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, the economy had virtually collapsed. Plant closings, high oil prices, and high consumer debt caused deep economic misery for thousands of workers even then. Job gains that year throughout the country were far lower during the summer of 2004 than Bush had repeatedly claimed, and economists expected.
The economy, though, didn't crash. The Federal Reserve micromanaged interest rates, and there was a relatively low inflation rate, and the expansion of the retail and service industries bolstered Bush's boast that his administration had created thousands of new jobs, and his tax policies had kept overall unemployment low. This was the powerful spur that Bush used to spin news, even bad economic news, as a gain. McCain is and will continue to do the same. Also, the economic pain in 2008 as in 2004 is not even. In other words not everyone is hurting. In polls a near majority of voters in the Southwest and the West rate the economy as good. Those are the GOP stronghold states and voters are even less likely to break rank and vote for Obama even if their economic worries trumped their racial qualms about him.
West Virginia was more than a symbolic, meaningless win for Clinton and loss for Obama. No Democrat has won the White House in the past near century without winning West Virginia. The chilling Obama loss in the state and the continued rejection of his candidacy by rural and blue collar whites make the Democrat's Obama gamble riskier than ever.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).