Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama didn't resolve his 'Appalachian problem,' but made progress; more so in other rural areas

If Barack Obama has "an Appalachian problem," he mitigated but did not resolve it yesterday, according to county-by-county results and state-by-state exit polls for national news organizations. In Pennsylvania, on which John McCain counted to turn the race his way, he got 56 percent of the vote in rural areas and 57 percent in the largely rural central and northern parts of the state. Statewide, Obama got 55 percent of the total vote. In Ohio, McCain got 53 percent of the rural vote in the poll; Obama carried the statewide returned 51-47.

In West Virginia, where Obama made a late effort that was connected to his Ohio and Pennsylvania campaigns, McCain won the statewide vote 56-43 and the rural vote (54 percent of the respondents) in the exit poll 54-44. He did carry several coal-mining counties: McDowell, Boone, Braxton, Webster and Monongalia (home of West Virginia University). The only other county he carried was Jefferson, an exurb of Washington, D.C.

In North Carolina, which has more rural voters than any other state, Obama was leading by 1 percentage point in the unofficial statewide vote, on his strength in urban areas. McCain got 57 percent of the rural vote in the exit poll, which accounted for 41 percent of the poll respondents. Obama carried three Appalachian counties: Buncombe (Asheville), Watauga (Boone) and Jackson (Sylva and Cullowhee, home of Western Carolina University) and a retirees' haven.

In Kentucky, which neither candidate visited after the primary, McCain won the vote 58-41 and carried 64 percent of the exit poll's rural vote, which accounted for almost half of the poll respondents. Obama carried only eight of the state's 120 counties, three fewer than John Kerry. In Appalachia, he carried Elliott, one of the state's smallest and most staunchly Democratic counties; Rowan, home of Morehead State University; Menifee, a small county that is becoming a home for retirees; and adjoining Wolfe. The other Obama counties were Jefferson (Louisville), Fayette (Lexington), Henderson and Hancock. The latter two are in the Evansville TV market, which had ads from both candidates, as did all markets along the Ohio River. Some adjoining counties in Indiana went for Obama.

Tennessee, which saw very few such local ads and was not contested, went for McCain 57-42. He got 61 percent of the exit-poll rural vote, which was 36 percent of respondents. Of the state's 95 counties, Obama carried six -- one of them Appalachian. That was Jackson on the Highland Rim, home county of the late Sen. Albert Gore Sr. He also carried Houston, near Nashville. The others have black populations ranging from 26 to 51 percent: Davidson (Nashville), Shelby (Memphis) and Memphis-area Hardeman and Haywood.

In Virginia, where the capital of the Confederacy was located, the rural vote split 53-47 for McCain, according to the exit poll, but Obama carried the statewide vote 52-47. And he held down McCain's margin in rural southwest Virginia, losing Dickenson County by only 40 votes, reports Teresa Mullins of the Dickenson Star. "Virginia voters move from Jim Crow to Obama in one lifetime," read a headline in The Roanoke Times. The paper's David Harrison noted, "Obama also won in a few rural areas, such as Buckingham and Prince Edward counties, which Bush had carried." (Read more)

Perhaps most significant was the result in Indiana, 80 years ago a hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan. It and Virginia hadn’t gone Democratic for president since 1964, but Virginia started turning blue on electoral maps a month ago. The election-eve consensus on Indiana was that McCain would carry it narrowly, but Obama turned it – perhaps with an Election Day visit. In the end, "McCain won many rural counties with 60 percent or more of the vote, but Obama offset that with big margins in many larger counties," report Mary Beth Schneider and Maureen Groppe in The Indianapolis Star. Overall, the exit poll gave McCain 55 percent of the rural vote.

In more northern states, with less history of racism, Obama carried rural voters: for example, 54 percent in Wisconsin, 2 points less than his statewide vote percentage. He "built an organization that reached out well beyond the traditional Democratic urban bases into rural towns and villages, including rural Marathon County," which includes Wausau, noted Robert Mentzner of the Wausau Daily Herald. "That outreach appeared to pay off, as Obama carried many of those municipalities. In Minnestota, he won the rural vote 50-48, according to the exit poll.

Nationally, "Race proved to be no discernible handicap, even among the small-town, working-class whites who were considered most resistant to the black political newcomer from Chicago," Peter Wallsten writes for the Los Angeles Times. "Racial antagonism still exists. But with Obama's victory, voters showed that such feelings no longer hovered over American politics as they had for decades. Most symbolic of that achievement was Obama's victory in Virginia" and his progress in the coal counties of its southwest. "As the president of the coal miners union told locals repeatedly in recent weeks, they could elect a 'black friend' or a 'white enemy'." (Read more)

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