Perhaps NBC's Chuck Todd best characterized the 2008 Democratic primary last night when he claimed that demographics, not votes, were the key to identifying which states would fall for either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. The latest round of primaries were no exception.
In states with either dramatically large or dramatically small populations of African-American voters, Obama is scoring impressive victories. Last night he took Oregon, where only 1.9 percent of the population is black. Likewise, in states where the African-American population is in the median of 4 and 16 percent, Clinton has dominated. She won a decisive victory in Kentucky last night, where blacks make up 7.5 percent of the populace.
Unfortunately for Obama, that median demographic is the standard for Appalachia and the Rust Belt, an area that includes important swings states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana. The question, of course, is why Obama thrives in the environments he does and why he just can not close deal in the environments he does not...more on that later.
For now, Obama can claim a tentative unbeatable margin of elected delegates (depending on what the DNC decides to do about Florida and Michigan in 10 days). As pundits like George Stephanopoulos and Tim Russert have pointed out repeatedly this morning, no Democrat has ever been denied the nomination after securing the majority of elected delegates. Of course, the superdelegates -- as we've known for sometime now -- will make the final determination on that front.
OBAMA'S RUST BELT PROBLEM
As the results indicated last night, Obama's support within his party is highly compartmentalized. The line between overwhelming success and dismal failure has been drawn with racial markers, gender markers, regional markers and economic markers. But which of these factors is legitimate?
The answer to how Obama succeeds in the environments he does is simple enough.
In states where the African-American population is high, Obama simply rallies his base and drives them to the polls. In South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana -- all states with large black populations -- he won between 85 and 95 percent of their support. Those three states, as well as much of the rest of the Deep South, share more in common than just a high percentage of black voters. They are permanently scarred by racial inequality, the history of which extends back prior to the Civil War, through the Jim Crow years of the early and middle 20th Century, the subsequent Civil Rights Movement, and still today, even into the admittedly progressive era that exists today. That history creates urgency within the black community to exorcise the demons of the past and vote almost en masse for a man who very likely could break the other highest, hardest, glass ceiling.
In states where the African-American population is extremely low -- the New England states, the Upper Midwest and Far West -- Obama wins by the same wide margins. In those areas, where white tolerance has never been tested as dramatically as it has in the Southern states, Obama's candidacy is seen in less of a historical context and in more ideological terms. His message in these states is generally uncluttered by matters of race, allowing him to better stay on message. Democratic voters in these states also tend to identify with the more liberal wing of the party, which is where Obama has planted himself, at least in relation to Senator Clinton, who has recently adopted a more centrist, populist message.
However, the answer of why Obama struggles throughout the rest of the country is likely less a question of race and more one of economics.
The aforementioned Rust Belt, formerly a booming industrial region, is now teetering on the edge of an economic abyss. It's not only that their jobs are being shipped overseas, or that wages are stagnant in a faltering economy. It's also that the old way of manufacturing, with its laissez faire attitude toward environmental matters, is being phased out as the green movement continues to seep into the fabric of the way things are done in this country. This area of the country, the eastern Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, is increasing desperate to stop the bleeding and, although highly susceptible to Obama's message of hope, is instead wary of more change.
That's Clinton's foothold. She can preach a populist message; a message of her own regarding change. But her experience lends credibility to the argument that she can actually accomplish what she sets out to do. If that isn't sufficient, then the presence of Bill Clinton -- the man who presided over the last great economic boom in this country -- lends even more credibility.
Obama, to these voters, represents the change that left Appalachia struggling to survive in a 21st Century economy. He's the embodiment of the younger generation of Americans: Americans in love with hybrid cars and compact florescent light bulbs. These Americans are so adapted to the concept of a global economy, that buying item's with a "Made in the USA" sticker no longer carries with it the same pride that it did during the peak manufacturing years of the mid-20th century. They are wary of him, and apparently, the only voters who push away from him the longer they get to know him. That is evidenced by his increasingly poor chronological efforts from Pennsylvania (where he lost by roughly 10 percentage points) to Kentucky (where he lost by 35 percentage points.)
For Obama, the question is whether the voters in these states view him as a safer risk than John McCain, who has already claimed that the economy is not his strong suit and enlisted the aid of status quo-ers Jack Kemp and Phil Gramm as his economic advisers. Running mates not considered, Obama has a terrific chance of making up significant ground with these blue collar voters, provided he can continue to characterized McCain as just another incarnation of the Bush White House.
THE KENNEDY EFFECT
The nation continues to reel after learning that the patriarch of the Kennedy dynasty, as well one of the longest-serving senators in U.S. History, has been diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. Furthermore, the tumor is apparently inoperable and the chances of his long-term survival are dismal.
Aside from the emotional toll that Kennedy's illness is taking on his family, the state he represents and the party and government body he helps to lead, the probable absence of the Massachusetts Democrat will likely have other major consequences.
For Barack Obama, he stands to lose an ardent supporter, surrogate and fund-raiser. The Democratic party loses a champion on important issues such as the economy and the Iraq War, as well as the last true representative of the greatest dynasty their party has ever known. What will be the end result if the Kennedy name is flushed away from the top of the party's leaderboard for the first time since the 1930s? Unfortunately, we should know the answer to that question, as well as the effect of Ted Kennedy's absence from politics, sooner rather than later.