Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Reaction to Kentucky Primary

My blog is once again in a suspended state. However, I wanted to shoot off an initial, poorly researched, emotional reaction to Kentucky's recent presidential primary.

Much has been noted in national discourse about the racist nature of Sen. Hillary Clinton's support in the Kentucky primary. As a lifelong resident of the Bluegrass state, I can say - at least anecdotally - that it is highly probable that racism was a large factor in Sen. Clinton's landslide victory here.

The exit polls show that Sen. Clinton took 72% of the white vote, with whites making up 89% of the voters, while Sen. Barack Obama took 90% of the black vote, with blacks making up 9% of the voters. 21% of Kentucky voters said that race was an important factor in their vote. 7% even said that race was the most important factor. 18% of white voters listed race as an important factor in the election. Of those 88% cast their vote for Sen. Clinton, while only 9% voted for Sen. Obama.

These numbers have been used to say various things. Among them, that Sen. Obama has "work to do" to "reach out" to "blue collar whites." Sen. Clinton even uses numbers like these - which are the foundation of her success in Appalachia - to argue that she can build a "broader base."

It has also been widely noted that Kentucky's Democrat voters are considerably more conservative than their national counterparts. I couldn't flip the channel to MSNBC or CNN yesterday without hearing some talking head note that, without, of course defining what is meant here by "conservative" or providing any context for Kentucky politics.

All of this amounted to a painful evening for me last night. Painful because my state's primary provided yet another pretense for the continuation of Sen. Clinton's impossible and divisive quest for the Democratic nomination. Painful because my state is being held up (perhaps rightly) as an example of the triumph of racism in American politics, a narrative that adds yet another hurdle for the Obama campaign to jump over. And painful because so much of this narrative is misleading.

Kentucky's voters in the Democratic primary - especially those outside Lexington and Louisville (Obama took 55% of the urban vote), who voted almost unanimously for Sen. Clinton - are called "conservative Democrats," or Blue Dogs. But perhaps many of them could be more accurately labeled "Democrats locally, Republicans nationally." This is because the state Democratic party has operated here as a machine - in many districts, even and especially rural, conservative districts, you can't crack into local politics without registering as a Democrat. Many local races are determined in the Democratic primary.

While this has changed some in the last decade or so, the lingering effects of the political machine are that the sympathies of many voters registered in the state of Kentucky as Democrats lean far more toward the Republican party. Sen. Clinton may rightly claim this as Clinton country (her husband carried Kentucky twice), but this is also Bush country. In fact, president George W. Bush enjoyed far more success here than President Clinton. And, no matter how she wants to spin it, Sen. Clinton - though she won the Democratic primary here by more than 200,000 (almost 250,000) votes - would have no hope of carrying my home state in the general election, even if she were able to somehow steal the Democratic nomination in what Jack and Jill Politics has dubbed her "deathmarch to Denver."

The exit polls indicated that a full 32% of voters in the Democratic primary plan to vote for Sen. John McCain in the general election. Of those voters, 85% backed Sen. Clinton in the primary. In other words, her "broad base of support" rests on voters who - while registered as Democrats in the Commonwealth of Kentucky - plan to support the presumptive Republican nominee for president.

Unlike polls in other states, in which the phenomenon of Clinton supports threatening to vote for McCain to spite Obama after a long, difficult primary, I suspect this is a real number. Given the climate of politics in Kentucky, I suspect more than seeing Clinton supporters lashing out at Obama, we have here McCain supporters voting for Clinton because - for local reasons - they are registered as Democrats, and thus must vote in the Democratic primary.

So Sen. Clinton's campaign was propped up here not just by the racist vote, but also - though we in Kentucky have a closed primary - by the Republican vote. This, then, hardly counts as a reason to either doubt Sen. Obama's viability as a candidate, or to believe that Sen. Clinton would be a stronger candidate in the general election. We didn't learn anything here that we didn't already know: Neither of these candidates will carry Kentucky in the fall.