Commentary Magazine


Primaries Make Obama Look Like a Loser

It didn’t take long for liberals to start spinning President Obama’s poor showing in two more Democratic presidential primaries last night. As was the case in West Virginia, more than 40 percent of Democrats in Arkansas and Kentucky voted against the president. While the president was spared the humiliation of being nearly bested by a jailed felon (his opponent in West Virginia), an unknown lawyer did as well as the jailbird in Arkansas, while the ever popular “uncommitted” got more than 42 percent in Kentucky. It should be admitted that these are protest votes in contests where the electorate is presented with a done deal. Moreover, President Obama didn’t win any of these states in 2008 and won’t win them this year, so Democrats are entitled to deprecate the results as not having an impact on the outcome. But the willingness of so many members of his party to turn out to vote against him must still be considered a danger sign for the incumbent.

For those seeking rationalizations for Obama’s troubles, Alec MacGillis in the New Republic points out Obama actually did worse than John Kerry did in some counties in these states in 2004. And though they are far less sanguine about the meaning of these numbers than MacGillis, Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake of the Washington Post raise the possibility that white racism is the reason for Obama’s problems. They speculate that some white southerners retain some vestigial loyalty to the Democrats as the party of their ancestors but would still never vote for a black. But as Cillizza and Blake point out, the unrest in Democratic ranks has implications far beyond these three states.

The president’s 2008 victory in North Carolina and Virginia was fueled by huge minority turnouts but wouldn’t have been possible without his retaining a significant portion of white working class Democrats. The same formula worked to his advantage in Ohio and Indiana. But the abnormally high percentage of protest voters in Democratic primaries illustrates the high levels of disaffection in the party. Even the 20 percent of North Carolina Democrats who chose not to back Obama in that primary could make the difference this time, especially when you consider the slim margin of victory for the president in that state in 2008.

MacGillis is right that the president’s stance on coal has had a disproportionate impact on West Virginia and Kentucky, and his troubles also reflect long-term voter trends in these states. Yet as even he notes, “Obama is a vulnerable incumbent” who is “running in hard times.” But rather than these points being a reason to discount the primary results, it is stating no more than the obvious to observe that is why he is vulnerable.

The president’s primary problems illustrate the cracks around the edges of the “hope” and “change” surge of 2008. With the Obama campaign determined to keep up a barrage of nasty and personal attacks on Mitt Romney and focusing on rousing the liberal base rather than appealing to independents, there isn’t much doubt that his advisers have looked at the math and realized they are not going to be counting on winning any states in the south this time around. That doesn’t guarantee his defeat, but it is a crystal clear indication that the president is going to have a very difficult time getting re-elected.