President Obama won his 34th and 35th consecutive Democratic primary contests on Tuesday night, claiming victories in Arkansas and Kentucky.
But his margin was surprisingly small in Arkansas — a state in which he was opposed by Tennessee lawyer John Wolfe, who had previously been on the presidential primary ballot in Louisiana, Missouri and New Hampshire and will be on the ballot in Texas next week. Wolfe has also run unsuccessfully for Congress four times.
With 61 percent of precincts reporting in Arkansas, Obama took 60 percent to 40 percent for Wolfe. In Kentucky, with nearly all precincts reporting, 42.1 percent of Democratic primary voters opted for “uncommitted” rather than backing the president, who received 57.9 percent.
Those results come two weeks to the day after Keith Judd, a convicted felon incarcerated in Texas, won 41 percent of the vote against Obama in the West Virginia primary.
Although the results haven’t stopped Obama’s march to renomination — he officially clinched the Democratic nod on April 3 — they remain an indicator of not-insignificant pockets of unrest within his party.
That phenomenon isn’t limited to the 2012 election.
In 2008, Obama underperformed the showing of Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) in the 2004 election in places such as Arkansas and West Virginia, even as he was sweeping to a major national victory.
One easy explanation — and the one regularly espoused by some Democrats — for Obama’s struggles in Appalachia and portions of the South is simply that some white voters will not vote for an African American for president.
But although no one doubts that race may be a factor, exit polling suggests that the opposition to Obama goes beyond it.
And seasoned political observers who have studied the politics of these areas say race may be less of a problem for Obama than the broader cultural disconnect that many of these voters feel with the Democratic Party.
“Race is definitely a factor for some Texans but not the majority,” said former congressman Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.). “The most significant factor is the perception/reality that the Obama administration has leaned toward the ultra-left viewpoint on almost all issues.”
In Appalachia, many people are angry at the Environmental Protection Agency’s approach to mining, arguing that the Obama administration has made it more difficult for people in coal country to make ends meet.
In 2004, Kerry took 38 percent of the vote among white, non-college-educated people — shorthand for the blue-collar voters who were once a core part of the Democratic constituency but have faded away considerably over the past 30 years.
Among that same group in 2008, Obama took 40 percent of the vote, not a statistically significant difference from Kerry. Bill Clinton, a son of the South and someone far more culturally aligned with blue-collar voters, carried non-college-educated voters by a single point in 1992 and 1996.
“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,” noted former congressman Martin Frost (D-Tex.).
Regardless of the reasoning, it’s clear that there is a bloc of Democratic voters in every state who want to register their opposition to Obama.
In the 16 states in which voters were given an alternative to Obama on the Democratic primary ballot — whether it be an actual candidate, a write-in or simply “uncommitted” — Obama averaged 84.6 percent of the vote.
In the five states where there was a named opponent, though, Obama’s share of the vote was 72.7 percent.
Although the vast majority of those states are like Arkansas and Kentucky in that no one expects them to be genuinely competitive in the November election between Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, notable exceptions exist.
In a non-competitive Democratic primary in the swing state of New Hampshire in January, a smattering of candidates took 18 percent of the Democratic vote, including 10 percent who chose to write in a candidate rather than back Obama.
Similarly, this month in North Carolina, which will host the Democratic National Convention this summer and is considered a tossup state, more than 20 percent of Democratic primary voters chose the “uncommitted” option over Obama.
Considering that he won North Carolina in the 2008 election by 0.4 percent over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — a 49.9 percent to 49.5 percent squeaker — even a minor abandonment of Obama by self-identified Democrats could make a difference this time around.