Shifting Loyalties

Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz discusses the results and implications of Tuesday's Md., Va. and D.C. primary elections going forward. Video by & Newsweek
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 13, 2008

For more than a month, the grand coalitions of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama battled to a draw: women, rural Democrats and the white working class pairing almost evenly with African Americans, young voters and affluent, educated whites.

Then came Virginia and Maryland.

Obama's thrashing of Clinton in the two states yesterday raised the possibility that her coalition is beginning to crack, three weeks before she reaches what will probably be more friendly territory in Ohio and Texas.

Obama won among men, among women and among union voters. He won big among the affluent, educated voters in the District's suburbs, but he also won convincingly among rural voters and small-town Democrats.

Celinda Lake, an independent Democratic pollster, noted that the class divide that once demarcated the Obama-Clinton battle lines was obliterated in Virginia and Maryland. In Virginia, Obama carried the vote of those earning less than $50,000 by 26 percentage points. In Maryland, the gap was 24 percentage points.

Clinton still pulled more votes from white women, but that advantage was neutralized by Obama's popularity among white men. Even Latinos, who helped deliver Nevada and California to the senator from New York, split about evenly between Obama and Clinton -- although the number of Hispanic voters was much smaller.

"Certainly he broadened his coalition," Lake said. "The question is whether that's a one-state phenomenon or a broader phenomenon, because it definitely changes the landscape."

The Clinton campaign has been banking on working-class Ohio and Texas, which has many Hispanics, on March 4 to stop Obama's momentum.

But Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Tex.) cautioned yesterday that Texans never thought their primary would make much of a difference, so they are only now starting to tune in. And Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said neither Clinton nor Obama has had to really contest a struggling industrial state in which voters are focused almost wholly on the economy.

"Voters in my state will not care about who won Iowa, New Hampshire, or this Washington Post-created Potomac Primary that is supposed to be a microcosm of America," he said. "Political momentum doesn't much matter to a middle-class family that's struggling."

But Obama supporters saw the Virginia results in particular as a turning point in the standoff between their candidate and Clinton. "It looks to me like the more Senator Obama wins, the broader the ranks of people who are supporting him are," said Rep. Rick Boucher, a conservative Democrat from western, rural Virginia. "He has been crossing the categories ever since Iowa, and he's doing so more and more."

"Barack Obama's challenge is to relate to average, blue-collar citizens that his message will make a difference in their lives," said Edwards, whose GOP-leaning central Texas district includes President Bush's Crawford ranch. "If that message was heard in rural Virginia, it could be a precursor to Texas."

To be sure, Obama's victory in Virginia was not a clean sweep. Clinton did capture the most rural region of the state, in the mountain hollers of Western Virginia and valleys of Southwest Virginia.

But he did not have to lean on any one region, any one race or any one demographic to take the state decisively, said Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.), an Obama supporter whose district stretches from Newport News to Richmond. Obama packed 18,000 cheering spectators into the Virginia Beach convention center and countless others were turned away. But this time, unlike in New Hampshire and California, those crowds seemed to portend something real.

By 5:30 p.m., the same number of people had voted in Scott's home precinct in Newport News that had voted in the November 2006 James Webb-George Allen senatorial campaign -- a number that far surpassed the turnout for the 2005 gubernatorial election.

Scott was most heartened by one statistic -- Obama's 56 percent win among white males, according to exit poll data.

"If you can split the white male vote, you can win this state in November," he said. "We believe now we can carry Virginia for the Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1964."

It is far too early to discount another Clinton comeback. Tad Devine, a Democratic campaign consultant, said Clinton can still break through if she can turn to the issues of the economy, health care and an end to the Iraq war, and prove to voters she has the expertise to bring the change Obama promises.

"She needs a big debate on big issues, not a small debate on politics and tactics," he said.

Brown said the candidate who finds one big idea to change the direction of the economy -- a message that resonates with the middle class, which feels left behind after nearly eight years of GOP rule -- will take Ohio. Neither candidate has found it yet, he added.

Obama has scheduled a speech on the economy today at a General Motors Corp. plant in Janesville, Wis. Clinton stressed the economy in a series of interviews with local news outlets.

Among some conservative Democratic politicians last night, there was an almost palpable sense of relief that Obama showed he could win over their constituents -- the blue-collar, rural whites who, they feared could bleed over to the GOP in the fall.

"It's not Senator Clinton's fault, but the baggage she carries is the divisiveness of the 1990s," Edwards said. "People are wanting to turn the chapter to the future rather than going back to the last chapter. It's not fair but that is the reality."

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