The Obama Gamble

Ken Blackwell

5/14/2008 1:02:34 AM - Ken Blackwell

Even with Hillary Clinton’s wide margin win in the West Virginia primary, Barack Obama will be the Democrat standard bearer in November. However, Democrats may well have buyer’s remorse. Their rush to nominate Mr. Obama, the least vetted presidential candidate in memory, will likely cost them the fall election. The voters, who many believe, Mr. Obama needs for victory in November are trending to John McCain. Obviously, Team Obama is looking at a different trail to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

West Virginia is thought of as a reliably Democrat state. Democrat Governor Joe Manchin won office in a massive landslide, and both U.S. senators—Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller—are completely safe as Democrat incumbents.

Historically, West Virginia’s politics has turned on two things: unions and culture. While the former usually controls electoral outcomes there, the later will likely deliver the state’s Electoral College votes to John McCain, as it did for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.

West Virginia’s economy is dominated by coal-mining and other blue-collar, labor intensive industry. Unions dominate the state’s labor scene, and have made West Virginia a Democrat stronghold for most of the last 108 years.

But the second factor, traditional culture, has two aspects in particular that have made West Virginia a purple swing state in modern presidential elections.

Many West Virginians live in small towns, and are at least moderately religious. With this comes a belief in traditional marriage, commitment to family and a heavy dose of national pride.

Patriotism runs deep in the Mountain State. Nothing speaks more to the West Virginian focus on heritage than their commitment to Second Amendment freedoms. West Virginia is gun country, as are all the states along the Appalachian Trail, where the NRA is strong and the Second Amendment is revered. Democrats are very successful in West Virginia, but almost without exception those Democrats make clear to voters their pledge to fight and protect for the right to keep and bear arms.

In the past two presidential elections those cultural issues drove West Virginia to vote for George W. Bush. Al Gore did not hide his anti-gun credentials in 2000, and lost the state to Mr. Bush by six points. John Kerry similarly did not disavow his anti-gun record in 2004, and added to it his refusal to support traditional marriage. He lost the state to President Bush by 13 points.

So how does Barack Obama respond to the clear challenge he has with white working class voters? He insults them and essentially writes them off. He tells them the Appalachian Trail is not his path to the White House. He tells his elite, wealthy financial supporters in San Francisco that such voters “cling” to guns and religion out of bitterness over their lack of economic prosperity. With statements reminiscent of Marx’s “opiate of the masses,” Mr. Obama suggests guns and religion are the emotional crutches blue-collar workers need to cope with reality.

Consequently, Mr. Obama failed to connect with West Virginia voters. He drove many of them straight into Mrs. Clinton’s waiting arms, and he seems to be executing the same strategy in the Bluegrass State of Kentucky. For him to lose these states by wide margins does not bode well for carrying them in the general election.

He has placed his electoral bet on other states and voter coalitions.

But this problem is larger than West Virginia and Kentucky. There are millions of similar voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and other states without which Mr. Obama cannot win the White House. And Mrs. Clinton has beaten Mr. Obama in every single one, often by wide margins.

Liberals and the writers of Saturday Night Live may say these voters will shun Mr. Obama because he is black and they are racist. Nonsense.

Just like high-minded liberals, these voters vote their values and priorities. In West Virginia, they overwhelming chose Mrs. Clinton because she didn’t write them off.

While some of those voters might go for Mr. Obama in the fall, many will not. If Mr. McCain can maintain an authentic contrast on faith, guns and patriotism, he will get more of these Democrat voters than Mr. Obama would like.

So as Mr. Obama panders to elitists in his party, who attend high-ticket San Francisco fundraisers, he alienates millions of working class voters, particularly so-called Reagan Democrats.

In that sense, the way Mr. Obama lost the West Virginia primary could be a harbinger of a November defeat.