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Why Tuesday's Democratic Primaries Matter

By Sean Trende - May 24, 2012


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Tuesday night, President Obama continued his streak of poor primary performances in culturally Southern states. He received 58.4 percent of the vote in the Arkansas Democratic primary against token opposition, and 57.9 percent of the vote in the Kentucky primary against no opposition (42.1 percent of the vote went to "uncommitted"). In the latter state's Harlan County, in the heart of coal country, Obama received 26.2 percent of the vote.

This comes on the heels of losing 40.6 percent of the vote in West Virginia to a Texas prison inmate, 21 percent of the vote to “uncommitted” in North Carolina, 24 percent of the vote to token opposition in Louisiana, 19 percent of the vote to “uncommitted” in Alabama, and 43 percent of the vote to various candidates in Oklahoma.

To be clear, with the exception of North Carolina, none of these states is in play. Obama is expected to lose West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arkansas badly in the fall. He had similar problems with these states in the 2008 Democratic primaries, losing West Virginia and Kentucky by massive margins to Hillary Clinton even after he was acknowledged as the Democratic nominee. And Obama remains very popular overall with the Democratic base.

But there are three ways in which these states really do matter.

1) This is beginning to function as an unprecedented primary challenge to Obama.

Using my handy “C.Q. Guide to U.S. Elections,” I went back to the birth of presidential primaries in 1912. There are only seven sitting presidents who have ever received less than 60 percent of the vote in any primary: Taft in ’12; Coolidge, ’24; Hoover, ’32; LBJ, ’68; Ford '76; Carter, ’80; and Bush ’92. All of these presidents, with the exception of Coolidge, were not re-elected -- and he eventually faced a substantial third-party challenge from one of his primary challengers.

Moreover, consider the men who brought these challenges: former President Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, Sen. Bob LaFollette in 1924, Sen. Joseph France of Maryland in 1932, Sen. Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1976, Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1980, and TV commentator Pat Buchanan in 1992. Obviously the quality here varies substantially, but all of these upstarts began with a much stronger national profile than Keith Judd or John Wolfe.

I think we can reasonably begin to view this as a sort of organic primary challenge to Obama, which runs strongly in the Southern and border states. Obama’s not likely to lose any states outright in the primaries; think of this more like Buchanan’s run against George H.W. Bush in 1992.

This is only relevant because a lot of people attribute some significance to the fact that Obama, unlike the other presidents who lost in postwar America, has avoided a substantial primary challenge. I’ve always been skeptical that this is the proper metric. Primary challenges strike me as a symptom, not a cause, of presidential weakness. Just as diseases can be present without all symptoms, presidential weakness can be present without a primary challenge. And, as always, we should be skeptical when making judgments on the basis of a fairly small number of observations.

But if you do attribute substantial importance to the lack of a primary challenge to the president, then I think you must re-evaluate, especially when you consider the weakness of his primary opponents. 

2) It may matter a lot in swing states that border these states.

What we’re really talking about here, and as I explored in great detail in "The Lost Majority," is "Greater Appalachia," an area that was settled by Scots-Irish immigrants in the late 18th century and that has retained an attachment to Jacksonian populism since then. This region begins in western Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina, stretches through the Appalachians and across the Cumberland Plateau, and spills over into southern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, across Missouri and Arkansas, and into north Texas and Oklahoma. It also brushes along the northern edges of Mississippi and Alabama.

Now, no one expects West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kentucky to be a part of Obama’s coalition this fall. But lots of people are looking at Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina. These states are where this primary weakness becomes potentially significant.

All four of those states have substantial populations in areas geographically and culturally similar to these “problem areas”: southwestern Pennsylvania, western Virginia and North Carolina, and southeastern Ohio. In all of these states, Obama’s path to victory is to hold down his losses in rural areas, and then maximize his vote among upscale and minority voters in urban areas.

In 2008 this strategy worked well, in large part because the financial collapse produced a large turnaround in the voting preferences of whites without college degrees. He still performed relatively poorly for a Democrat among these voters, but his margins were enough to enable him to capture these four states. If he’s facing a virtual rebellion among rural white Democrats (and presumably a similar problem with independents) this time around, his odds of capturing these four states diminish appreciably. Once again, this isn’t to say that he will necessarily lose, just that his path to re-election narrows if Romney is racking up big wins in the 11th District of North Carolina, or in the old 6th District of Ohio.

3) It’s a critical problem for the "Emerging Democratic Majority" thesis.

Democrats are ecstatic with their prospects in the Mountain West, and with good reason. Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado have all swung substantially their way over the past three decades. To illustrate this, check out the following map, which shows the PVI of the Mountain West states in 1996 and 2008 (PVI is simply the percentage of the vote the state gave to the Democratic presidential candidate, minus the Democratic presidential candidates’ national showing):

But -- and this is a problem for the thesis in general -- for every action in politics, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Here’s the map of Greater Appalachia during this time frame:


The Mountain West trend has gotten a lot of coverage; the trend in Greater Appalachia has been much less well covered. And to be clear, this isn’t an abrupt, anti-Obama trend in Greater Appalachia, nor is it an abrupt, pro-Obama trend in the Mountain West. Instead it’s a gradual trend, reflecting the shifting demographics and voter trends in these regions. See, for example, the change over time in Nevada’s PVI, and compare it to the change over time in, say, Kentucky’s PVI.


When the "Emerging Democratic Majority" was written, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira suggested that the shift in the Mountain West would occur: New Mexico is rated “Solid Democratic,” Nevada is rated “Leans Democratic,” and Colorado and Arizona are “Leaning GOP, but competitive.” This probably worked out to be correct, if a bit under-optimistic in Colorado’s case.

But the trend in the Appalachian states was overlooked: West Virginia is “Leans Democratic,” Missouri is “Leans Democratic,” and Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee are “Leans GOP but competitive.”

Judis and Teixeira appropriately note that their predictions are conditional on a number of contingencies, but this is not an insignificant shift. The three Mountain West states -- four if we are generous and include Arizona -- comprise a total of 31 electoral votes and contain 23 House seats. Our states in Greater Appalachia comprise 47 electoral votes and contain 35 House seats, plus another 10 or so House seats in neighboring areas. In other words, by ceding these core Jacksonian states to the Republicans, Democrats are ceding about 20 percent of the House seats needed for a majority in exchange for 10 percent of the House seats needed for a majority.

To be sure, the Mountain West states have been growing, while Greater Appalachia has been in decline. But it will take about 30 years before these Mountain West states, including Arizona, equal our Jacksonian states in terms of the Electoral College. By that point, our political coalitions will have probably shifted a few more times, making it impossible to say who will get the better of the tradeoff in the long run.

In the short term, this tradeoff has had critical implications for recent Republican successes. Of the 63 seats Republicans picked up in 2010, 15 were in Greater Appalachia. Without these seats, their majority would be much slimmer, and Democrats would be only 10 seats from a majority, rather than 25. Many of these seats represent districts that Bill Clinton had been competitive in during the 1996 elections, but which have slipped away from his party since as the Democrats have become increasingly liberal, urban and culturally cosmopolitan.

This is the real reason Tuesday night's results are significant. I actually don’t think these voters are complete lost causes for the Democratic Party -- Republicans should be trembling at the prospect of a true populist like Brian Schweitzer of Montana running against Romney in 2016. But they do seem to be rejecting the Democratic standard-bearer for now. Given the sizable number of potential electoral votes at stake, this is not small potatoes. And the potential obstacles posed to Democratic attempts to take back the House stemming from this weakness are both real and substantial. 

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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