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By Jay Cost

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Obama, Small Town Whites, and the Super Delegates

Hillary Clinton has not won many news cycles of late. Reverend Wright helped her win a few. Ditto Obama's San Francisco comments. But these are exceptions. By and large, her press has not been good.

When not questioning her memory of Bosnia or her chief strategist's conflicts of interest, people have been asking how Clinton can actually win. Few think she is likely to. Those who give her a chance, such as myself, can only imagine her winning "dirty" in Denver, muscling her way to half-plus-one via the super delegates. No Democrats, aside from Clinton's most ardent supporters, want that. It implies a nominating campaign through the end of August and a debacle on national television.

Of course, there is a group who can stop this from happening - the uncommitted super delegates. If they swung to Obama in large enough numbers, they could effectively kill Clinton's campaign. If 50 or more of them endorsed Obama in a short span of time - Clinton would have a very serious viability problem.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we've read a bunch of stories suggesting that Clinton has a "super delegate problem." But by and large the super delegates haven't budged. Most of those who were undecided in early March are undecided as of today. According to Dem Convention Watch, Clinton had a 97-delegate lead on February 10th. By March 9th, Obama had cut that lead to 39. But since then, despite all of these stories about Clinton having no real chance, Obama has netted just 13 super delegates. As a group, the super delegates have not moved. More than 40% remain uncommitted.

I think this is curious. They surely do not want a bitter convention battle, so why haven't they brought an end to this? I think their reticence has to do with Obama's terrible performance in Ohio. He not only lost, he was roundly defeated - even after his great victories in Wisconsin, Virginia, and Maryland. The nature of his defeat might be giving the super delegates pause.

Specifically, Obama's problem in Ohio was with white voters. Consider the following chart:

Obama's Share of White Voters.gif

As you can see, Obama did worse in Ohio among whites than in these other major states. Again, what is so intriguing about the Ohio result is that it came amidst stories of how Clinton was finished. That curiosity continues. Analysts give Clinton very long odds - but Pennsylvania Democrats haven't hopped aboard Obama's bandwagon.

Unfortunately, the exit polls only tell us so much. Nevertheless, we've seen enough data to know which socioeconomic groups he's having trouble with: rural/small town whites who do not make a lot of money. We can confirm this by looking at the counties in Ohio's sixth congressional district, which makes up most of the Ohio River Valley. This is the premier swing district of the 21st century. Bush won it by 5,000 votes in 2000 and 2004. Obama did horribly there last month, as the following chart details.

Clinton's Performance in OH 06.gif

As you can see, Obama got blown out in the sixth. The only exception is Athens County, where Ohio University is located.

There are several Ohio districts that tell a similar tale. In the west, Obama did quite poorly in the fifth and the eighth. In the northeast, he did poorly in the fourteenth and the seventeenth. He actually did worse in the second and eighteenth than he did in the sixth. What's more, in geographically large congressional districts, you can always find at least a county or two where Clinton beat him by 25 points.

Beyond Ohio, Obama seems to have had this problem again and again, as Sean Oxendine illustrates in this incisive essay. Big wins in places like Virginia and Mississippi often belie a weakness with the same types of voters.

This could be a potential problem for Obama come November, but the reason is not obvious. Democrats should not worry about whether the primary voters who supported Clinton last month will support Obama in November. They probably will. Voting in a primary election is a sign that the voter is a strong partisan, and therefore unlikely to support the opposition in the fall. Nor, for that matter, are they likely to abstain from voting.

Rather, the concern for Democrats is whether Obama's poor performance among white, strongly partisan Democrats is a sign he will be weak among white, persuadable voters. We're talking about weak partisans and Independents. They're the ones who swing elections in Ohio. Obviously, they differ from strong Democrats in terms of partisanship - but they still have many socioeconomic characteristics in common with them. The weak partisans and Indies are the relatives, friends, neighbors and coworkers of the strong Democrats who voted so overwhelmingly for Clinton last month. While the persuadables do not share their strong partisan orientation, they might share the same disinclination to Obama. The strong partisans expressed it in March by voting for Clinton; the weak partisans and Independents might express it in November by voting for McCain.

The operative word here is might. This is only a possibility. Nobody knows whether these primary results are indicative of the general election. To argue they definitely are requires an inferential leap that we simply cannot take. These primary results could signal trouble for Obama in November, but they could just as easily signal nothing at all.

In other words, these primary results only raise the questions. They don't provide the answers. But when we're examining the super delegates, that's exactly the point. These questions might be holding them back. Perhaps they want the nomination battle to continue so they can get some answers. Perhaps what Obama needs to do is simply improve his showing with these voters in other states. That would show the super delegates that, when it comes time for the general election, he can compete in places like Ohio's sixth district.

He'll have plenty of chances - what with Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia all coming up. There are lots of these types of voters for him to win over, and thus lots of chances to show that the Buckeye State was an outlier, that it just takes him longer to catch on with these folks.

This is why his comments in San Francisco were so unfortunate. If they are going to turn off anybody, it's the people we've been discussing. Will they? It is too early to say. We should know in a day or so. If they do, they'll impede his cause in Pennsylvania. He needs to do just one thing in the Keystone State, and it isn't win. He just needs to pull in some respectable numbers among white voters. They don't need to be as good as they were in Wisconsin - just something closer to Maryland and Texas. Failing to do that in Ohio meant that he failed to deliver the knockout blow to Clinton then and there. If he fails again in Pennsylvania, the race will go on. And the longer it goes on, the better chance she has of coming from behind and taking this nomination.

-Jay Cost