US presidential elections: New rules?

Noticed that a lot of commentary on the presidential election rests on conventional wisdom? You know, to take the White House the Dems have to win in the “key battleground states of Ohio, Florida…”, and the like.

For some time I’ve been unsure that all of that stuff will apply this fall. After West Virginia’s primary, I’m not sure that it can if the Dems are to win, with Obama.

West Virginia. It’s hard to find a whiter, older, more working-class and less educated state. It is quintessential Hillary-land. Went there once myself, and felt real Deliverance-type edginess. It’s not the most advanced part of the Union, you might say.

I really don’t think that you can easily brush off the significance of the all-out rout of Obama as hillbilly madness.

First, there’s “values”. WV reveals the yawning cultural gulf between Obama and the socially conservative, working class white vote. They’re the ones wedded to their guns and religion — in WV, more than half the population are said to own guns. Most of all, they resent patronising liberal, urban elite types who pontificate about their “bitterness”. Note that this isn’t necessarily about race…

Except that, in places like WV, it is. At least in part. When 20% of voters in WV admit to race being part of their decision, it can’t be denied. How many more simply couldn’t bring themselves to fess up to the pollster? Race may no longer be a factor in the Northeast, Midwest, (Rocky) Mountain states, or the Pacific Northwest, but the south and the Appalacian states seem to be another matter.

The bottom line: only 49 percent of WV Democratic primary voters said they would support Obama if he is the nominee.

To some, this is a major problem. No Democrat, they say, has won the White House without West Virginia since Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Bill Clinton won the state, but Bush took it twice, largely on the basis of “hot-button issues” such as gun control, abortion, and gay rights.

That’s the conventional view. But, in an insightful piece, Peter Keating argues:

“… it’s a big country. Obama leads John McCain in Colorado, Iowa, Washington, and Wisconsin in recent polls… He’s within striking distance of McCain in North Carolina, as well as Virginia… And scattered polls over the past few months have shown Obama ahead of or close to McCain in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and even Alaska… Clinton always needed to win Ohio and Florida to beat McCain. Obama might not.”

Many pundits have ignored the possibility of wholesale realignment. Could this be a realigning election? Do the old rules still necessarily apply?

Might the tidal wave of new voters, attracted by a candidate promising a “new politics” change the game? Could, as Keating suggests, Obama’s landslide primary coalitions in Virginia and North Carolina, combined with recent local Democratic successes, put those states on the table, too?

Have the Southwest and Mountain states shifted far enough to the Dems to be “swing states”? A couple of years ago an Atlantic Monthly article explored the subtle shifts in the social values and voting behaviour of the interior west, arguing that Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico were just as deserving of the term swing states as Ohio. The election later that year showed just how purple the mountains had become.

The question confronting Obama must be, should he direct his attention to the Appalacian and Southern states that Democratic candidates traditionally have had to hold. Or should he try his luck in places like Virginia, and the West, where the voters aren’t used to voting Democratic in presidential elections, but where they have been increasingly voting Democratic in-state, and where their values are starting to merge with their Pacific neighbours?

In other words, should he dispense with conventional thinking and bet on a fundamental realignment?

Footnote: For those interested in the possibilities for Obama’s VP, emeritus professor Gerald Pomper’s piece is a must-read.

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One Response to “US presidential elections: New rules?”

  1. Obama — playing by new rules? « Jafapete’s Weblog Says:

    […] — playing by new rules? I blogged after the West Virginia primary about the possibility that the presidential election might diverge from the convential wisdom about […]

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