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Kentucky, Arkansas primaries: Is it racism?

at 11:48 AM ET, 05/23/2012

That President Obama lost roughly 40 percent of the vote in Democratic primaries in Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia over the last two weeks has drawn massive national headlines.

Those headlines have drawn a collective eyeroll from Democrats — and many others who closely follow national politics — who ascribe the underperformance by the incumbent to a very simple thing: racism.

No, none of these Democrats are willing to put their name to that allegation — either generally or for this story. But, it is, without question the prevalent viewpoint they hold privately.


President Obama speaks at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the University at Albany on May 8. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
They argue that conservative white Democrats — particularly those in the South and Appalachia — don’t want to vote for an African American for president and, therefore, are willing to cast a ballot for almost anyone else up to and including an incarcerated felon. (Keith Judd, we are looking at you.)

The problem with that theory is that it’s almost entirely unprovable because it relies on assuming knowledge about voter motivations that — without being a mindreader — no one can know.

“There’s no easy or simple answer,” said Cornell Belcher, president of Brilliant Corners, a Democratic polling firm. “One man’s racial differences is another man’s cultural differences.”

What we know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that Appalachia and portions of the South — particularly those states without large African American populations — have long been hostile to President Obama.

There are any number of data points that make that point plainly.

During the 2008 Democratic presidential primary campaign, Obama lost Kentucky by 35 points and West Virginia by 41(!) points to then Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton even though both states voted late enough in the process that it was already clear Obama would be the nominee.

In the 2008 general election, only five states voted more Republican than they had four years earlier. Those five states were: Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia. (In Oklahoma and West Virginia, Obama and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry got the same percentage of the vote but Obama got less raw votes.)

And, since a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s an amazing graphic courtesy of the New York Times that shows the counties that voted more Republican in 2008 than they did in 2004.

It’s abundantly clear then that the problems Obama has had in primaries in places like West Virginia and Arkansas aren’t new.

But, sussing out the “why” of Obama unpopularity in these states is far more tricky.

Former Texas Rep. Charlie Stenholm, a longtime conservative Democrat, acknowledged that “race is definitely a factor for some Texans but not the majority,” adding: “The most significant factor is the perception/reality that the Obama administration has leaned toward the ultra-left viewpoint on almost all issues.”

Martin Frost, another former Texas Democratic Congressman, seconded that notion. “In states like West Virginia and Oklahoma, it’s just that voters are down on national Democrats generally, and I don’t believe it is due to race,” said Frost.

Other theories abound. The average voter in Appalachia and the South is simply more conservative than they believe Obama to be. His Administration’s policies regarding mining have hurt him in coal country. Obama’s academic pedigree — Columbia, Harvard Law School — reek of elitism to many people in the South. (Of course, Kerry was tagged as an elitist by President George W. Bush during the 2004 campaign and managed to overperform Obama in a number of the states we are talking about even while losing nationally.)

“Race, resentment [and] fear,” explained Donna Brazile, a Louisiana native and Democratic strategist when asked about Obama’s underperformance. “Democrats have not had any messaging in those states for more than a decade. It’s hard to get voters to like you or even know you when all they hear is negative stuff.”

Tom Cole, a Republican House Member, dismissed the idea of race as a major factor in opposition to Obama out of hand.

Said Cole:

“Obama fares poorly in states like Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arkansas because he has nothing in common with them. They are rural, he is urban. They are populist, he is elitist. And in case anyone hadn’t noticed, they are conservative while he is liberal. That isn’t just true of Republicans in these states. It is true of Democrats as well.”

Quantifying how much any of these factors up to and including race matter when it comes to why lots of Democrats don’t like Obama in Appalachia and certain southern states remains very difficult.

Race is clearly a factor in some portion of peoples’ votes nationally and it’s more likely to be considered a negative factor in the South. In a December 2007 Washington Post-ABC News poll, six percent said a candidate being African American made them more likely to support him while five percent said it made them less likely. Among southern whites, seven percent said a candidate being black made them less likely support him while three percent said it made them more likely to back him.

(There has been a drastic dropoff in that response on the race question; in 1988, 27 percent of people in an Associated Press poll said a candidate being black made them less likely to support him/her for president.)

And, just prior to the 2008 election, Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 61 percent of southern whites were “entirely comfortable” with Obama as the first black president. Whites in the Midwest (75 percent), Northeast (80 percent) and West (83 percent) were much more likely to say they were “entirely comfortable” with the idea of Obama as the first African American president.

So, what does all of the above tell us? That, yes, President Obama’s race probably is regarded as more of a negative politically in Appalachia and portions of the South than it is in other regions of the country.

But, simply labeling the 42 percent of Kentuckians who supported “uncommitted” over Obama or the 41 percent of Arkansas who backed Tennessee lawyer John Wolfe over the incumbent as “racists” is a major oversimplification.

Untangling or decoupling how people feel about Obama’s race from how they feel about the policies he has pursued in office and his general beliefs about the size and necessity of government is impossible. No poll or election result can divine voters’ motivations.

And that means figuring out how much of the anti-Obama vote in these southern and Appalachian state primaries is directly attributable to racism simply can’t be done. It’s a tough answer but the right one.

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