May 20, 2008 -- Tuesday's Democratic primaries told a tale of two states, with Southern whites overwhelmingly rejecting Barack Obama in Kentucky while an equally white electorate in Oregon brought differing political sensibilities – and an Obama victory – to the table.
Whites accounted for the vast majority of voters in both states, according to voter polls. But winning support from Southern whites remained a problem for Obama, in Kentucky as in West Virginia and elsewhere. His 50-point loss among Kentucky whites was second only to his losing margin among whites in Arkansas.
In Oregon, by contrast, Obama won white voters by 15 points, 57-42 percent, and non-whites (a mix of blacks, Latinos, Asians and others) by 62-38 percent. Whites in Oregon, compared with those in Kentucky, were better-educated, better-off financially and more apt to be political independents.
But Oregon whites also simply were better attuned to Obama – in terms of thinking he shares their values, in seeing him as honest, and in accepting his efforts to distance himself from his controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama was rated negatively on all these by majorities in Kentucky, and positively by majorities in Oregon.
Working-class (i.e. less educated) whites, consistently a better Clinton group, especially in Southern states, were far more dominant in Kentucky than in Oregon. They accounted for two-thirds of white voters in Kentucky, and backed Clinton by 4-1. Working-class whites in Oregon divided, 50 percent for Clinton, 49 percent for Obama.
But in Kentucky it wasn't just about the white working class; Clinton won college-educated whites in Kentucky as well, by less of a margin but nearly 2-1. Obama's problem was with these white voters overall. His greatest losses among whites, by 40 points or more, all have been in Southern states – Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Reflecting their discomfort with Obama, nearly half of Kentucky Democrats said they would not support him in a November election against John McCain, again similar to the result in West Virginia. In Oregon, by contrast, only 12 percent said they wouldn't vote for Obama against McCain, as many as wouldn't support Clinton as the nominee.
As in West Virginia, among other states, there were indications of some racially motivated voting in Kentucky. Nearly two in 10 whites said race was an important factor in their vote, and nearly nine in 10 of them voted for Clinton. More strikingly, among those whites who called race a factor, just 29 percent said they'd support Obama if he's the nominee in November – the fewest to date in states where the question's been asked. Four in 10 said they'd support McCain; the rest wouldn't vote.
While Clinton complained Tuesday of sexism in the campaign, there have been fewer signs of anti-female voting. Across all primaries to date, men who said the candidate's sex was important in their vote have been more likely, not less so, to support Clinton.
At the same time, sex did differentiate the vote in Oregon, where Obama won men by 66-33 percent, but split women essentially evenly with Clinton, 52-48 percent. There was no such gap in Kentucky, with both sexes there heavily favoring Clinton.
Obama has won some Southern states where his weakness with white voters was overwhelmed by African-American turnout. In Kentucky, however, blacks accounted for just 9 percent of voters, again similar to West Virginia and a far cry from, for example, their 50 percent share in Alabama and Mississippi.
Blacks made up even fewer voters in Oregon, 3 percent.
Compared with Kentucky, working-class whites accounted for many fewer voters in Oregon, just over half of whites there. Many more independents voted in Oregon, 26 percent compared to 11 percent in Kentucky, and Obama did particularly well with Oregon independents, winning them by 68-32 percent. (He also did much better with Kentucky independents, a 7-point loss, compared with his 38-point defeat among mainline Democrats there.)
Obama did better in Kentucky – if not particularly well – with some of his other core groups. He lost voters there under age 30 by 13 points, while losing seniors by 60 points; and he lost postgraduates by 17 points, while losing high school graduates by 53 points. He did particularly well with younger and better-educated voters in Oregon, winning them by 42 and 32 points, respectively.
There also was a striking ideological gap: Fifty-seven percent in Oregon identified themselves as liberals, matched or exceeded only in a handful of primary states to date, and Obama won them by 61-39 percent.
Far fewer were liberals in Kentucky, 37 percent. But this didn't explain the outcome there: Clinton won liberals in Kentucky by 24 points, a very wide margin even if less than her more than 2-1 advantage among moderates and 4-1 among conservatives.
It's the Economy...Again
Following the education gaps, economic concerns were far higher in Kentucky (where two-thirds called the economy the top issue in their vote) than in Oregon (45 percent).
A fair question is why Clinton won so convincingly in Kentucky (as in West Virginia) despite all the political obituaries written about her campaign in the last few weeks. One reason is the antipathy those voters expressed about Obama. Another is the fact that most by far made up their minds long ago: More than seven in 10 said they decided on a candidate more than a month ago – far more than in previous primaries this year. (Across all primaries to date, only 47 percent made up their minds so early.) However, Clinton won by wide margins whenever Kentucky voters decided.
Even with her win in Kentucky, there were problems for Clinton.
More than half said they think Obama – not Clinton – will be the eventual Democratic nominee. And as in earlier states more again saw Clinton rather than Obama as an unfair campaigner. Many more in Oregon than in Kentucky said they think Obama will be the nominee – 78 percent – and voters there were yet more critical of Clinton's campaign style.
As elsewhere, moreover, supporting the candidate who can "bring needed change" was the No. 1 attribute to Kentucky voters, and Obama won them, by 10 points, 54-44 percent. Clinton, though, won by a vast 73 points, 84-11 percent, among voters who placed more importance on other attributes. In Oregon, by contrast, Obama won change voters not by 10 points, but by 68 points, 84-16 percent, among his biggest margins on this question to date.
If there weren't enough dramatic differences between Democratic voters in Kentucky and Oregon, a final example was in their religious beliefs. Twenty-eight percent in Oregon professed no religion, second only to Vermont and compared with just 6 percent in Kentucky; weekly church attendance was twice as high in Kentucky as among Oregon voters; and 34 percent in Oregon said they never attend church at all, vs. just 11 percent in Kentucky. These did not cut heavily to vote preferences in the two states – but they certainly underscored the diversity within the Democratic primary electorate.