Friday, May 16, 2008

Obama's rural problem is an Appalachia problem

Much has been written about Barack Obama's problem with rural voters, but we haven't seen anything better than the piece this week by Jonathan Tilove, left, who has covered race for Newhouse News Service since 1991. Tilove focuses, appropriately we think, on Appalachia and its traditional culture, and uses a nicely varied set of sources to make his case.

"There are enormous regional differences in how whites vote, differences with deep historical roots," Tilove writes, noting how well Obama did in Vermont, the most rural state and the second-whitest. But Vermont was not settled by Scots-Irish, who with their neighbors from the northern English borderlands largely settled Appalachia. Their descendants' main problem with Obama may not be his race, but his approach.

"With his Harvard pedigree, mellifluous voice and high-minded talk of moving beyond the politics of confrontation, he is totally out of place in Appalachia," Tilove writes, quoting what Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, former rural adviser to John Edwards, told Politico the day before West Virginia's primary: "We've heard all this 'hope' and 'change' stuff since the English kicked the Scotch-Irish out in the 1700s. We're 'hoped' out. Nothing ever changes out here."

Tilove writes, "For those keeping score, seven of the 10 whitest states have held primaries or caucuses. The Illinois senator has won five and the New York senator two — New Hampshire by an inch and now West Virginia by a country mile. Stretch it to the 20 whitest states and the tally is 12 for Obama and five for Clinton, with three to go. If you limit it to primary and not caucus states, of the 20 whitest states, Obama has won four — Vermont, Wisconsin, Utah and Missouri — and Clinton has won five — New Hampshire, West Virginia, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Ohio."

Citing Josh Marshall on Talking Points Memo, Tilove writes, "The map of Appalachia lines up pretty well with a map of counties where Clinton has won more than 60 percent of the vote. Tilove also cites Dana Houle, who has written about the Appalachia vote on Daily Kos: "Houle does not believe that Obama's difficulty in Appalachia does not necessarily translate into a broader or more permanent problem with white voters." Houle pits it this way: "Obama doesn't have a racial problem. It appears that Appalachia has an Obama problem."

Tilove also cites one of the most important books about ethnicity in America, Albion's Seed, by Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fischer. It teaches us that there are significantly different ethnicities among whites, such as the four main groups that came from Great Britain. "Obama appeals more to whites like those in New England ... who inhabit the lands first settled by the more intellectual and moralistic Puritans, and the places from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Northwest where those New Englanders migrated," Tilove explains. "Voters in Appalachia are Andrew Jackson Democrats, for whom John McCain, with his Scots-Irish heritage and temperament, may appear to be the real McCoy."

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., says in his 2004 book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, that his forebears formed the "core culture around which Red State America has gathered and thrived." But he thinks their descendants have common ground with the core Democratic constituency. He wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2004, "The greatest realignment in modern politics would take place rather quickly if the right national leader found a way to bring the Scots-Irish and African Americans to the same table." Tilove quotes that and notes, "It's an intriguing statement from a man who two years later was elected to the Senate and now is mentioned as a potential running mate for Obama." (Read more)

For an analysis that is much to the contrary, click here.

UPDATE, May 21: In the wake of Kentucky's May 20 primary, which produced results similar to West Virginia's, CNN analyst Bill Schneider picked up on the theories of Tilove, Saunders and Webb, an Appalachian who wrote a book about the Scots-Irish called Born Fighting. He said of Clinton, "She comes across as a fighter. Obama is running as a conciliator and a consensus-builder," and that is not working "with blue-collar and Appalachian whites who want a more combative style of politics … Obama’s betting that voters are fed up with the fight and want to try something different – for a change."

UPDATE, May 22: On Huffington Post, Jeff Biggers accuses the national media of superficial, simplistic reporting on the Appalachian vote. Appalachian Media Institute youth producer Ada Smith expresses concern on National Public Radio that stereotyping of Appalachian voters will make talking about racism and dealing with it more difficult. "I think we may be scared to admit that more Americans than just Appalachians have a race problem," she says. "Instead of questioning how we're going to deal with racism as a country, it's easier to make Appalachia the scapegoat, carrying the load." To listen, click here.

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