Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Indiana looking more pivotal in primaries, perhaps latest signal of increasing rural influence

We reported last week that Hillary and Bill Clinton were turning Indiana into a presidential battleground with Barack Obama, and today Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post takes note. We think that is the latest signal that the role of rural voters in deciding the Democratic nominee will increase. But one major commentator thinks it's all but over.

"Wedged between Illinois, which is Sen. Barack Obama's home state, and Ohio, which Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton dominated on March 4, Indiana may be the one state remaining on the primary calendar where both candidates begin with a roughly equal chance of coming out ahead," Kornblut writes. "Obama has a home-field advantage, while Clinton has the backing of the popular Sen. Evan Bayh and may have an edge on the kind of economic issues that are likely to dominate the discussion before the state's Democrats vote on May 6."

Here's evidence that Indiana may be a pivotal state: "While both campaigns grudgingly admit that the race here is competitive, each is seeking to portray the other as starting with a lead in pursuit of Indiana's 72 pledged delegates," Kornblut writes. Then she make a tentative call: "But demographics and some of the state's similarities to Ohio, where Clinton won big on March 4, suggest that the senator from New York has a leg up. ... Clinton's alliance with Bayh, son of Indiana legend Birch Bayh, is already paying off." See our item from last week.

Indiana is "uniquely important," Kornblut writes, because it votes the same day as North Carolina, "where Obama is widely considered to have the advantage. If Clinton wins Pennsylvania, as expected, she hopes to ride that momentum into the remaining contests, including those in Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky and Puerto Rico. Losses in Indiana and North Carolina would quickly blunt any claim to momentum for her." Kornblut quotes chief Obama strategist David Axelrod, speaking Friday: "Pennsylvania is an uphill battle for us. West Virginia is an uphill battle for us. Kentucky is an uphill battle for us." But he added: "Indiana is going to be a real fight." (Read more) West Virginia votes May 13, Kentucky May 20.

Rural voters are becoming more important. Pennsylvania, which votes April 22, is about as rural as the nation -- 21 percent in the 2000 census. The states that follow are more rural: North Carolina, 40 percent (and the most rural residents of any state, 3.2 million); Indana, 29 percent (1.78 million); West Virginia, 54 percent (975,000); and Kentucky, 44 percent (1.79 million). Oregon, which also votes May 20, had 727,000 ruralites, 21 percent of its total.

It's logical to think the controversy over Obama's former pastor will make it harder for him to connect with rural voters (though we've seen no polling to show that), but David Books notes in The New York Times today that Obama has rebounded to the same slim lead he had over Clinton in national polls before the controversy exploded 10 days ago. Playing on the title of Obama's book, he says Clinton "possesses the audacity of hopelessness," has only a 5 percent chance of winning and should "cruise along at a lower register until North Carolina, then use that as an occasion to withdraw." (Read more) Brooks presumes Obama will maintain his lead in North Carolina; there have been no public polls in that state since his March 18 speech on race; one taken March 17 showed his lead down to 1 percentage point, statistically insignificant.

UPDATE, March 26: Conservative columnist Robert Novak sees hope for Clinton in the remaining schedule. He says Indiana is "leaning Clinton," and "The media presentation of this as a fair-fight, 50-50 state helps Clinton spin this." (Read more)

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