You could practically hear the guffaws emanating from Twitter last night over the 41 percent vote share that Keith Judd, a federal inmate in Texas, managed to win in the Democratic presidential primary in West Virginia. And sure, there’s humor to be had in an incarcerated man winning a bunch of counties against the incumbent president of the United States. But was this outcome necessarily as telling and disastrous for Obama as the twitterati snark was making it out to be? Not exactly. As is so often the case, the punditocracy was willfully ignoring regional context. West Virginia has, to put it mildly, never been friendly territory for Obama. He lost the 2008 primary there to Hillary Clinton by 41 points. More notably, the state was at the heart of a long swath of territory where John McCain did better in 2008 than George W. Bush had done in 2004, even as McCain did significantly worse than Bush nationally. Finally, there’s the matter of party identification. What makes last night’s result so seemingly jarring is that it came in a Democratic primary. But Democrats in West Virginia are about as conservative as Democrats get these days. The equivalent conservative Democrats further South long ago switched to Republican, coaxed along by the sharp racial polarization in states with large black populations. But in far more racially homogenous West Virginia, many conservative Democrats still keep the D next to their name, even as they have shifted firmly into the Republican column in presidential elections.
So yes, titter your hearts out over Mr. Judd, twitterati. But keep in mind just where these anti-Obama votes are coming from—desperately poor counties that, even at the height of Obama’s 2008 popularity, saw him as the embodiment of a cosmopolitan Democratic Party that had moved away from them. Oh, and counties that, for what it’s worth, have in the past decade or two been losing a whole lot of mountaintops to produce the coal that powers Washington’s laptops and iPads.
A final note: feel free to declare me an overearnest “drip” for the above commentary, but know that the estimable John Podhoretz got there before you.
*For much deeper, and unsettling, West Virginia context, check out this terrific new post by Ken Ward, Jr., the Charleston Gazette’s legendary coal-industry reporter.
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