In what has become a regular ritual this spring, the punditocracy is cracking itself up tonight over Barack Obama's embarrassingly poor performance in Democratic primaries in Appalachia and the Upland South. Two weeks ago 41 percent of Democratic primary voters in West Virginia picked a prison inmate in Texas over Obama; tonight, he's being given a run for his money in Kentucky by "uncommitted." Still looming tonight is Arkansas, where he doesn't figure to fare much better: the most-read story at washingtonpost.com all day was a piece forebodingly headlined "Barack Obama's Arkansas primary problem."
These sorry performances by a sitting president with no real competition for his party's nomination are being taken by many as further proof of Obama's weakness as an incumbent running in hard times. Well, no. Obama certainly is a vulnerable incumbent, as suggested by the latest national polling showing him only slightly ahead of Mitt Romney. But Kentucky and Arkansas offer little in the way of affirmation. For the hundredth time, let me suggest that people take a look at this map. It shows the counties where Obama in 2008 got a lower share of the general election vote than John Kerry had four years earlier, even as Obama did vastly better than Kerry nationwide. It is a virtually contiguous band of territory stretching from southwestern Pennsylvania through Appalachia and across the Upland South, finally petering out in north-central Texas. It is, almost to a T, what Colin Woodard, in his fascinating new ethnographic history of North America, American Nations, defined as the territory of the "Borderlanders" -- the rough-hewn Scots-Irish who arrived in this country from the "borderlands" of northern Ireland and Scotland, and claimed for themselves the inland hill country, far from the snooty Northeastern elites and Southern gentry. And look more closely at the map -- where was Obama's 2008 dropoff particularly heavy? In eastern Kentucky and most of Arkansas.
Keep in mind: this was at the peak of Obama's popularity. It was before he began his "war on coal," before Obamacare, before all the things that pundits will point to to explain why this part of the country is so dead set against the president. And yet he did worse in this region than Kerry, who's not exactly Johnny Of The Ozarks. The easy explanation for this is obvious, but I don't think it's actually all that simple. The more complicated answer is that this region has been shifting away from the Democrats at the national level for more than a decade now, as the national party has become more identified with highly-educated elites -- a trend that Barack Obama accelerated because, well, he's a highly-educated elite. But many voters in these parts still identify as Democrats, unlike their fellow conservatives in the Deep South, and so they turn out to vote in Democratic primaries.
A final thought on this: I happened to be in this part of the country this past weekend for a piece that I'll be publishing soon, and I can report that in my conversations, I was surprised to find the working-class people I was speaking with not nearly as vitriolic against Obama as one might have expected. For the most part, they thought he was doing his best in a tough spot. (Though they did not care for the gay marriage announcement.) But here's the other thing about the people I spoke with: almost to a person, they said they don't vote -- usually not in the general election, and certainly not in the primaries. Which to me was a further reminder that what we're seeing in Arkansas and Kentucky tonight, is a very, very selective and circumstantial statement. For pundits to make anything more of it than that is to be willfully geographically and ethnographically illiterate.
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