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Why Tuesday's Democratic Primaries Matter

By Sean Trende - May 24, 2012

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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.

 

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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 strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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