By A.B. Stoddard - 05/14/08 05:26 PM EDT
Someone else won in West Virginia Tuesday, and won big. It was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) thrashing of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in the Mountain State may not help her take the nomination from him, but she has highlighted for McCain what could be Obama’s fatal weakness in rural America. Clinton’s pattern of white, working-class romps has provided McCain with the strategy for beating Obama in critical swing states, including a precise map that runs through Appalachia.
Obama, donning his newly discovered flag pin and reading awkwardly from his notes, has now joined the general election McCain has had to himself for two months. As Obama stumbles aboard, McCain’s own weak start as the GOP nominee — sweating it out to boos at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference, for example — now seems a distant memory. While Obama was battling Clinton and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, McCain consolidated his base, and polls now show more than 90 percent of Republicans are likely to back him.
Next to Obama’s perhaps impossible task of wooing enough white Clinton voters, McCain’s rapprochement with suspicious and seething conservatives looks like something closer to shooting fish in a barrel.
In the hills of West Virginia, Clinton shot many fish herself. Voters considered race (20 percent of voters said it was a factor and of them, eight in 10 went for Clinton), they didn’t like the Rev. Wright, they did like the gas tax holiday, they thought Obama didn’t share their values, and a majority of them don’t want to vote for Obama in the fall. The findings in the exit polls told a tale of woe for Obama worthy of his own country song. Even worse was the fact that these voters chose Clinton knowing she cannot become the nominee, absent divine interference or a tragedy. Why did these blue-collar whites turn out enthusiastically against the person they know is the presumptive nominee? Race is a factor with some white voters, as it has been since the start, when black Democrats supported Clinton almost 3-1 over Obama and didn’t move until he had won the white voters of Iowa. Patriotism is a factor.
Elitism is a factor. Whatever the combination, these voters tend to see in Obama — at worst — a hyper-educated, urbane, effete snob. At best they seem him as different, not one of them. Call it racial or call it cultural. But call it a gift for McCain, and it will keep on giving next week in Kentucky.
Many of these voters will come around to Obama, because of the war and the economy. But still many of them are McCain’s for the taking.
Michael Barone, in his exhaustive, remarkable study of the contests through March, found voters divided, nearly scientifically, into two categories — the Jacksonians of Appalachia for Clinton and academics for Obama.
“Clinton, and more convincingly McCain, give the impression they will never stop fighting until they have achieved victory ...” Barone wrote, and went on, “Obama gives the impression, through his demeanor and his statements on Iraq, that he would never start fighting.” But it is McCain, Barone wrote, who is the real Jacksonian in the race, descended from Scots-Irish fighters.
McCain can start fighting right now, picking up where Clinton left off with white working-class Americans. They are in West Virginia, Arkansas, southwest Virginia, east and central Texas, western and central Pennsylvania, eastern Oklahoma, rural Tennessee, southern Missouri, southern Ohio and northeast Mississippi — and they rejected Obama.
Unlike Clinton, he won’t have to swill shots and stand atop pickup trucks. McCain is rugged enough, tough enough and he has a much longer record of fighting. And next to Obama, he looks far more the country boy.
Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.