February 24, 2008

Can Obama Carry The Red?

Barack Obama has raised hopes for a Democratic victory in November by winning primarily in states that normally vote Republican. He argues that this shows he can redraw the Electoral College map in the general election and force Republicans onto the defensive in normally safe areas of the country. However, Hillary Clinton has an argument by reflexion that she can safeguard the Democratic strongholds better -- and that Obama's red-state strength could be overrated:

In winning Tuesday's primary in the key swing state of Wisconsin, Sen. Barack Obama drew support from tens of thousands of Republicans and independents. He pulled off the same feat in his landslide victory in the Virginia primary the week before, suggesting he could win the state in November. In South Carolina, he had more votes than the top two Republican contenders put together; in Kansas, his total topped the overall GOP turnout.

All along, Obama has argued that he can redraw the political map for Democrats by turning out unprecedented numbers of young voters and African Americans, and by attracting independents and even Republicans with his message of national reconciliation. But the picture emerging of his appeal in GOP strongholds and in swing states, even as he widens his delegate lead over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), is more complex than his claim to broad popularity in "red state" America would have one believe.

Obama (Ill.) posted big wins over Clinton in caucuses in Plains and Mountain states such as Kansas, Nebraska and Idaho, but Republicans in those states scoff at the suggestion that victories in the small universe of Democrats there translate into strength in November. In Tennessee and Oklahoma, Obama lost by wide margins to Clinton, who lived in nearby Arkansas. He narrowly won the primary in the swing state of Missouri, but did so thanks to the state's solidly Democratic cities, losing its more rural, and more conservative, areas to Clinton. ...

The red states where he has won have tended to be in the Deep South, where victories were based on overwhelming support from African Americans, or in mostly white states in the Midwest and West, where he relied on a core of ardent backers to carry him in caucuses, which favor candidates with enthusiastic supporters. He has not fared as well in areas that fall in between, with populations that are racially diverse but lack a black population large enough to boost Obama to victory.

This tends to deflate the enthusiasm argument for Obama. He has won his states through hard work and outreach, but primarily to the Left and among his own base in red states. His caucus victories in these states show that he can fire up Democrats, but Democrats don't decide general elections in states like Kansas and Georgia. Hillary has a point when she notes that Obama fares less well in traditionally strong Democratic states, suggesting that the centrist appeal of John McCain could prove deadly.

However, Karl Rove proved that a party could win a national election by sufficiently motivating its base -- twice. Obama shows that he can do that much in the red states, putting them at least in play. The problem for Obama is that the African-American electorate is traditionally the most motivated and responsive segment anyway, and young voters tend to skip the actual casting of ballots. Can he really gain enough momentum in a general election to squeeze enough new votes to change the electoral map?

It's possible. Hillary could claim that she could hold the blue states more effectively, but with her out of the picture, nothing indicates that Obama wouldn't do well. The biggest problem Obama will have will be the purple states -- states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, and others that barely went red or blue in 2000 and 2004. If McCain makes the case that Obama is too much a lockstep liberal and big-spending statist, the battleground states will make all the difference -- and McCain's maverick track record gives him the inside track for the center.

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