Obama's Appalachian problem
By JONATHAN TILOVE
Newhouse News Service
Thursday, May 15, 2008
WASHINGTON — According to exit polls, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton won 67 percent of the white vote in West Virginia, America's third-whitest state. Sen. Barack Obama in early March won 60 percent of the white vote in Vermont, the nation's second-whitest state.
America is learning a lot about race this year, most recently that not all white voters are alike. There are enormous regional differences in how whites vote, differences with deep historical roots.
Clinton's romp in West Virginia, and in all likelihood another in neighboring Kentucky on Tuesday, do not prove that Obama has a problem with white voters generally or that whites have turned on him. He is expected to win in Oregon on Tuesday — it's 21st on the list of whitest states. His campaign noted Wednesday that he is doing better with white voters in national matchups with Sen. John McCain than either then-Vice President Al Gore or Sen. John Kerry did in their campaigns against President Bush.
But Clinton's West Virginia landslide does mean Obama, for reasons that go beyond race, has a problem with Appalachia's whites and the Scots-Irish who settled there and forever branded its culture.
These are people whose ancestors lived and fought along the brutal borderlands between England and Scotland, and later in Northern Ireland (they are the Protestants of Ulster). Unlike other British settlers, Scots-Irish migrated "directly to the wilderness of the Appalachian Mountains, bypassing even the rudiments of colonial civilization," Sen. Jim Webb writes in his 2004 book, "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America."
Frequently occupying the lower rungs socially and economically, they always have been the most likely to fight and die for their country, Webb writes. They don't cling to guns; they proudly pass them on to their young sons as a rite of passage that Webb likens to a "redneck bar mitzvah." Webb, of Scots-Irish descent, says his father gave him his first rifle when he was 8 and his first boxing gloves when he was 6.
Around the same time, his father laid out "the eternal ground rules for street fighting," now echoed in the last days of the Clinton campaign: "Never start a fight, but never run away, even if you know you are going to lose. ... And whomever you fight, you must make them pay. You must always mark them, so that the next day they have to face the world with a black eye or a cut lip or a bruised cheek, and remember where they got it."
Enter Obama. With his Harvard pedigree, mellifluous voice and high-minded talk of moving beyond the politics of confrontation, he is totally out of place in Appalachia.
"What people don't understand about Appalachia is that we've heard all this 'hope' and 'change' stuff since the English kicked the Scotch-Irish out in the 1700s. We're 'hoped' out. Nothing ever changes out here," Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a Virginia political strategist who worked on John Edwards' campaign, told The Politico on the eve of the West Virginia vote.
For those keeping score, seven of the 10 whitest states have held primaries or caucuses. The Illinois senator has won five and the New York senator two — New Hampshire by an inch and now West Virginia by a country mile.
Stretch it to the 20 whitest states and the tally is 12 for Obama and five for Clinton, with three to go. If you limit it to primary and not caucus states, of the 20 whitest states, Obama has won four — Vermont, Wisconsin, Utah and Missouri — and Clinton has won five — New Hampshire, West Virginia, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Appalachia reaches from western New York and Pennsylvania down through eastern Ohio, all of West Virginia, stretches of western Virginia and the Carolinas, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee and on into north Georgia and Alabama and northeastern Mississippi. As Josh Marshall noted in a posting on Talking Points Memo after the West Virginia results were in, the map of Appalachia lines up pretty well with a map of counties where Clinton has won more than 60 percent of the vote.
"She's won the Appalachian region of every state contested," wrote Dana Houle, who in his postings on Daily Kos has dissected how Obama's difficulty in Appalachia does not necessarily translate into a broader or more permanent problem with white voters.
"No, Obama doesn't have a racial problem," Houle concluded. "It appears that Appalachia has an Obama problem."
Unlike John Kennedy who, with charm and money won the West Virginia primary in 1960, Obama barely contested West Virginia and seems to be taking a pass on Kentucky as well.
While his being black, or biracial, didn't help Obama there and elsewhere in Appalachia, ascribing racist motivations to Clinton supporters ignores the obvious, according to Michael Lind, a senior fellow at the New American Foundation. They could go with the newcomer Obama, who in April explained to some wealthy San Franciscans — their cultural arch-enemies — that small-town folks like them weren't with him because they were "bitter" about their lot. Or they could stick with a Clinton.
"Bill Clinton won Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia in 1992 and again four years later," Lind wrote on Salon. "Is it at all surprising that these very same voters, facing a recession, would choose another Democrat with the last name Clinton?"
More like John Adams
In his classic work, "Albion's Seed," Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fischer described the four distinctly different British migrations that made America.
Obama appeals more to whites like those in New England (although he lost Massachusetts and Rhode Island decisively), who inhabit the lands first settled by the more intellectual and moralistic Puritans, and the places from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Northwest where those New Englanders migrated.
In other words, Obama is more in the John Adams or John Quincy Adams mold, and voters in Appalachia are Andrew Jackson Democrats, for whom John McCain, with his Scots-Irish heritage and temperament, may appear to be the real McCoy.
"John McCain is very true to his Southern Highlands Mississippi origins," said Fischer, the historian.
Or as Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist, wrote on his blog back in February, "I've heard more than one guy mention McCain's volcanic temper as a positive. They equate this with toughness against our enemies."
Webb says the Scots-Irish — who were once Democrats — created the "core culture around which Red State America has gathered and thrived." But he does not believe they are irrevocably lost to the Democrats.
"In fact," Webb wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2004, "the greatest realignment in modern politics would take place rather quickly if the right national leader found a way to bring the Scots-Irish and African Americans to the same table."
It's an intriguing statement from a man who two years later was elected to the Senate and now is mentioned as a potential running mate for Obama.