The Riddle of Appalachia

Obama doesn't exactly have an "Appalachia problem." After all, if West Virginia had a black population akin to Alabama or Mississippi's, Obama would almost certainly have won the state.
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As expected, Sen. Hillary Clinton crushed Sen. Barack Obama in yesterday's West Virginia primary. This result means very little, of course. Obama still has the most pledged delegates, the most superdelegates, and the most popular votes, and is still firmly on track to capture the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. While not very politically significant, though, the outcome in West Virginia does shed some new light on the kinds of Democratic primary voters who do and do not vote for Obama.

The so-called "race chasm" theory, conceived not long ago, held that Obama prevails wherever African-Americans make up a very small (i.e. less than 6 percent) or very large (i.e. more than 17 percent) share of a state's population. The idea was that very white states lack a legacy of racial discrimination, and are thus receptive to a black man running for president, while the blacks in heavily African-American states are able to overwhelm the less amenable whites who live there. In between, where blacks make up more than 6 percent but less than 17 percent of a state's population, racial polarization reduces Obama's appeal to white voters but African-American voters are not numerous enough to compensate.

This theory had correctly predicted the result in just about every primary to date. Yesterday, though, it misfired spectacularly. West Virginia, a state where blacks make up just 3 percent of the population -- a state that was founded because of opposition to slavery -- went for Clinton by 40 points over Obama. States with similar black/white demographics (e.g. Nebraska, Maine, Washington) had all previously gone for Obama by significant margins. So what on earth happened in West Virginia? Why did the "race chasm" theory fail so dramatically?

Josh Marshall posits an interesting historical answer. Marshall observes that West Virginia is part of Appalachia, a region with a historical, ethnic, and socioeconomic profile distinct from the eastern seaboard, the deep South, or the Midwestern plains. For a variety of reasons, Marshall suggests, Appalachian voters are particularly likely to support Clinton over Obama.

But this explanation is not very satisfying either. Yes, West Virginia went overwhelmingly for Clinton while Southern states like Alabama and Mississippi fell into the Obama column. But white voters in West Virginia were essentially indistinguishable from their peers in the deep South. According to exit poll data, Clinton won West Virginia white voters by a 69-23 margin -- and Alabama and Mississippi white voters by almost identical 72-25 and 70-26 margins, respectively.

What these numbers mean is that Obama doesn't exactly have an "Appalachia problem." After all, if West Virginia had a black population akin to Alabama or Mississippi's, Obama would almost certainly have won the state. And if Alabama and Mississippi had the same black/white demographics as West Virginia, Obama would almost certainly have been trounced. Rather, Obama's greatest difficulty seems to be with white voters both in Appalachia and in certain nearby states. For whatever reason, white voters in states like Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and West Virginia have all proven extremely reluctant to support Obama, instead preferring Clinton by margins of at least 20 points.

Still, there is hope that Obama can increase his appeal to these states' white voters in the general election. For one thing, whites in some Southern and Midwestern states were surprisingly receptive to Obama. Since Obama lost Georgia whites by only 10 points, there would seem to be no reason why he should lose Alabama and Mississippi whites by 45 points. Similarly, since Obama won Virginia whites by 5 points, there would seem to be no reason why he should lose North Carolina whites by 24 points. A general election is also a very different contest than a Democratic primary, and many of the whites who voted for Clinton over Obama can be expected to support Obama when he becomes the party's nominee.

Finally, and most importantly, Obama seems well aware of his unpopularity with certain white voters, and eager to do his best to improve the situation. It is a very good sign that today's New York Times headline reads: "After Lopsided Loss, Obama Woos Blue-Collar Voters." Wooing may not always work -- but it plainly beats ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away.

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