Where Obama has no hope

Humiliating primary results in Kentucky and Arkansas prove that, in some states, Obama-phobia still reigns

Published May 23, 2012 12:42PM (EDT)

There’s a large swath of rural America, extending from somewhere in Oklahoma up into West Virginia, where Barack Obama never had a chance, and it really showed last night.

A majority of Kentucky’s 120 counties voted against Obama in the state’s Democratic presidential primary, opting instead for “uncommitted.” Big margins in Louisville and Lexington saved the president from the supreme embarrassment of actually losing the state, not that his overall 57.9 to 42.1 percent victory is anything to write home about.

In Arkansas, the other state to hold its primary yesterday, the results were only slightly less humbling to Obama, who defeated an actual human-being candidate -- a Tennessee lawyer named John Wolfe -- by a 58.4 to 41.6 percent spread, with more than a third of the state’s 75 counties siding with the challenger. Wolfe, if anyone asked him, was running against Obama from the left, on a progressive economic message. But to the average Arkansas voter, his name might just as well have been “not Obama”; he had no money, no campaign organization, and no name recognition, and he received scant media coverage.

Whether this qualifies as Obama’s most humbling primary night of 2012 is open to debate. Just two weeks ago, a federal inmate who somehow maneuvered his way onto the West Virginia ballot racked up nearly 41 percent against the president in that state’s primary and carried 10 counties. Back in March, Obama was held to 57 percent in Oklahoma, losing 15 counties to anti-abortion zealot Randall Terry and another gadfly candidate. Terry actually qualified for delegates in that contest, prompting national Democrats to invoke their “LaRouche rule” and deem him unqualified to actually receive delegates.

There were also problems for the president in pockets of Louisiana, where Wolfe cleared the 15 percent delegate eligibility threshold in several congressional districts. Democrats are refusing to actually allocate any delegates to him, though, on the grounds that he failed to file a comprehensive delegate selection plan – a rationale that is also being invoked in Arkansas. Wolfe is vowing to overturn the rulings in court.

In terms of deciding the Democratic nomination, obviously, none of this really matters. Obama has won most states by the massive margins that incumbent presidents typically rack up against fringe challengers and “uncommitted,” and he long ago surpassed the magic number of delegates needed for re-nomination. In most of America, this year’s Democratic primaries have been just as uneventful and unremarkable as they were in 1996, the last time a Democratic incumbent sought reelection.

But then there’s that sea of resistance in Appalachia and states like Arkansas and Oklahoma. A case can be made that Obama’s energy policies contributed to his West Virginia headache, but otherwise there’s no sense trying to pin this on anything he’s actually done as president because the resistance was just as apparent when he ran four years ago.

Back then, Obama was crushed by Hillary Clinton in West Virginia by 41 points – even though it was clear by primary day that he was on his way to being the nominee. In Kentucky, Clinton’s margin was 35 points. In Arkansas (where she served as first lady for more than a decade), it was 44. And in Oklahoma, it was 25. The same largely poor, rural and white areas that gave Clinton her best numbers in 2008 are now doing the same for John Wolfe, “uncommitted” and Randall Terry. The problem was just as apparent for Obama in the fall of 2008, when he improved on John Kerry’s 2004 performance in just about every corner of the country except the Oklahoma-to-West-Virginia swath.

Chalking this up only to race may be an oversimplification, although there was exit poll data in 2008 that indicated it was an explicit factor for a sizable chunk of voters. Perhaps Obama’s race is one of several markers (along with his name, his background, the never-ending Muslim rumors, and his status as the “liberal” candidate in 2008) that low-income white rural voters use to associate him with a national Democratic Party that they believe has been overrun by affluent liberals, feminists, minorities, secularists and gays – people and groups whose interests are being serviced at the expense of their own.

The good news for Obama is that this probably doesn’t say much about what will happen in November. The damage is limited to states he was already expecting to lose to Mitt Romney. Not that this will stop Republicans from playing up Kentucky and Arkansas as the latest proof of Obama’s shattered popularity. But that’s just spin. He could have a 60 percent approval rating, and he’d still be getting embarrassed in these states.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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