Barack Obama’s candidacy enjoys broad support and seems to be unified in ways most candidates could only dream of prior to the internet and text messaging age. Obama’s wide support, horizontal networking, and ability to inspire various demographics have thrust him within reach of the Democratic nomination. Still, if Obama cannot reverse trends among poor rural voters he may fall short in November. In short, I suggest Obama spend the time associated with airplane flights and drives to speeches listening to A Country Boy Can Survive by Hank Williams, Jr. over and over again. If Barack finds his inner Bocephus and understands those lyrics, Obama cannot be stopped in November.
For those who would point out that the Democratic Primary is certainly not yet over, I simply submit that the thesis of this column is also useful for explaining Obama’s difficulty tying up the Democratic nomination. Money and superdelegates seem to be heading in Obama’s direction even if PA, WV, and KY are looking like Clinton wins. Indiana also may go Clinton’s way. The struggles in those states along with the shellacking Obama took in rural and economically depressed Ohio suggest that he does suffer a rural problem.
Possible Causes of Obama’s Rural Struggles
It is possible that Obama’s rural struggles stem from a love affair between rural voters and the Clintons. It is true that Bill Clinton seemed to understand farming issues as a candidate and president. I am not sure that Hillary ever exuded rural gravitas unless one considers her improbable gains in the commodities market in the late 1970’s to be a sign of rural strength. Throw in Bill pushing NAFTA and GATT through in his first term along with a draconian welfare bill that Bill signed to avoid welfare wars in his 1996 re-election bid and the rural poor are not exactly joined to the Clintons as they were to FDR.
Others might argue that rural areas lack racial diversity and therefore Obama is simply out of luck due to being a person of color. This is possibly true among some voters, but such an explanation strikes me as a poor musician blaming his or her instrument. Some voters have issues with race, some have issues with gender, some have issues with age, and some voters are just difficult period, but Obama has been able to inspire support among many people. Obama has performed best in states with either a very high or a very low percentage of African American voters. Victories in Wyoming, Alaska, Iowa, North Dakota, Vermont, Maine and Idaho prove Obama can win in predominantly white areas. This suggests to me that his rural struggles are not just based upon racial tensions.
I believe an investigation of where Obama’s stump speech is strong will reveal information about why he struggles among the rural poor. Obama has been strongest among African American voters, young voters and wealthy progressives. In the Potomac Primaries, Obama was able to tap into all three groups. Many wealthy voters live in the greater DC area. Many African Americans live in DC, Baltimore and the Tidewater area of Virginia. Numerous colleges and universities dot the region. Obama’s message of a brighter long term future, ending the war and recasting U.S. politics appealed to all three groups, and he crushed Hillary Clinton.
Rural Ohio lacks a diverse population, lacks a large number of colleges and lacks economically upscale progressives. Obama giving wonderful speeches about a vision for the future is a noble thing that has reinvigorated U.S. politics. The fact that he has also pushed through ethics reforms and engaged in community organizing tells me that these speeches are not just words as Hillary Clinton has often implied. My guess is broad visions appeal to young people because the future is largely undiscovered. A grand vision appeals to people who have been historically oppressed because of possessing a historical consciousness that change takes place over generations. Big vision appeals to some wealthy voters because they can afford to look beyond immediate needs.
The rural poor are in an odd spot of facing economic uncertainty within the new global economy but not having faced generational oppression. For Obama’s general vision to make contact, his speeches must speak to the particular and peculiar economic uncertainty that people largely considered “typical Americans” now face. These economic woes are being faced for the first time by large numbers of rural voters for the first time since the Great Depression. Obama’s vision has to appeal to the uncertainties of a proud people without being condescending. A hand up or fair shake will sound much better than a handout. John Edwards knew how to preach this message even if his haircuts were expensive. Obama’s economic standing is much more middle class than Edwards or Clinton’s, but his ability to sound middle class has not always shown through.
Obama-Hank Williams, Jr. Ticket?
I do not suggest that Obama run with Williams, Jr., but I do think he has to channel the spirit of Hank to win in November. I grew up in Kentucky and have a deep love for my state. I saw on an evening news cast that 1 out of 7 people in Kentucky receive food stamps. 1 out of 7! No doubt many of these people are children. There is a very good chance that Kentucky will vote Republican in 2008 despite such a move not being economically advantageous for many Kentuckians. Voting on family values when the economic system of a totally unregulated global economy impoverishes many children is a really vexing situation.
Abortion issues and gun rights no doubt contribute to that dynamic, but one would think that Kentucky would lean Democratic due to it electing a Democratic governor in 2007 and due to the economic consonance with Democratic positions. The thing is that national Democrats in general have not been able to talk to coal miners, small farmers and small town voters in a way that is respectful even if such voters are a natural group for Democrats to speak to.
If Obama can talk to voters who can plow a field all day long and catch catfish from dusk till dawn, he can compete for rural votes due to the uncertainty injected by the global economy in areas that had previously been largely shielded from change. If Obama can recognize that some voters can make their own whiskey and their own smoke too and respect that there aren’t too many things that country boys can’t do, he will likely steal a few red states and win the whole thing with ease.
Obama-Webb is a Winner
Of course Obama’s message plays well in Virginia, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado and he could simply try to win with upscale voters switching sides over the war and due to liking his message, but I think trying to win in the South is a nice insurance policy too. That is why Obama likely needs to name Virginia Senator Jim Webb as his running mate so he can balance the ticket with a no nonsense populist, defense hawk from the South. Visionary eloquence, historical consciousness, military experience, and no nonsense populism adds up to a ticket that can survive.