The Scientific Activist

Yesterday, Barack Obama won all three contests (Maryland, Virginia, and DC) in the “Potomac Primary”, all by sizable margins. This means that he has won all eight contests that have occurred since Super Tuesday. He now leads the delegate race–even when superdelegates are included–and he maintains an incredible amount of momentum going into the February 19th contests of Hawaii and Wisconsin, where he is expected to do quite well again. However, his delegate lead is still slim, and if he wants to become the true frontrunner, he’ll have to have a strong showing on March 4th, particularly in Texas (228 delegates) and Ohio (161 delegates).

Throughout the race, polls have indicated that Obama trails Hillary Clinton in Texas and Ohio. But, just as the case has been nationwide, as the elections in these states approach Obama has seen a sudden surge in the polls. Coming into the race, voters are much more familiar with Clinton, but once campaigning begins and they get to know who Obama really is, that gap closes, and Obama often takes the lead. Considering that campaigning in Texas and Ohio has barely started and that Obama has already seen such a boost, I expect that Obama will make both races quite competitive.

Based on the old wisdom from early in the 2008 campaign, the demographics of Ohio and Texas should favor Clinton, but that logic has proven increasingly irrelevant. The Washington Post sums this up nicely today:

As in other states, Obama racked up huge margins among black voters in Maryland and Virginia. Clinton won a majority of white women, as she has throughout the nominating season, but Obama won white men in Virginia and split that group in Maryland.

Obama also led Clinton in almost every age category, a break from previous contests in which he won younger voters but Clinton often carried older voters. Obama’s biggest margins were among those younger than 45, but he also led among those ages 45 to 60. He and Clinton split voters age 65 and older.

In earlier primaries, Obama won liberals while Clinton captured moderates. Yesterday, he was winning both groups. In the past, he won among wealthier voters while she won among the less affluent, but yesterday he was winning both decisively. He also won voters who have no college degree — normally a group that favors Clinton. Obama easily carried independents, as he has in the past, but he also won among Democrats, where Clinton has been stronger.

About half of voters in Maryland and Virginia cited the economy as their top concern, similar to results in other states that have already held a primary or caucus. Yesterday, Obama won that group decisively.

Obama also beat Clinton among voters who named health care as their top concern, even though this has been an area of strength for Clinton. Almost a third of Democratic voters in Maryland and Virginia called the Iraq war the biggest issue in the campaign, and Obama beat Clinton among these voters by 2 to 1.

In Virginia, Obama handily beat Clinton in Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia and almost all of the state’s central counties, including Richmond and its suburbs. In vote-rich Alexandria and Arlington, which has a growing immigrant population and many affluent young professionals, he bested her by more than 20 percentage points.

But Obama’s success also extended into the outer suburbs. He won Prince William and Loudoun counties, even though Clinton’s team believed that she could do well there by winning over women

Younger and well-educated voters also flocked to Obama. In Albemarle County, home of the University of Virginia, he had nearly 70 percent of the vote with all of the precincts reporting. He also had narrow leads in several overwhelmingly white rural counties in the northern Shenandoah Valley.

In short, no matter how you slice or dice the population–with the exception of white women–Obama either won every demographic or at least did as well as Clinton. Obama even matched Clinton in support from Hispanic voters, a demographic that will be especially important in Texas. So, much of this early consensus about who’s favored by what demographic has proven to be false. But, one trend that has emerged is that Barack Obama does very well in red states and swing states.

This trend, which will be of fundamental importance in the general election, has caught the notice of officials in the states of the upcoming primaries, including my former Congressman, Chet Edwards, a Democrat who is all too familiar with red state realities. From The Washington Post:

The Clinton campaign has been banking on working-class Ohio and Texas, which has many Hispanics, on March 4 to stop Obama’s momentum.

But Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Tex.) cautioned yesterday that Texans never thought their primary would make much of a difference, so they are only now starting to tune in. And Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said neither Clinton nor Obama has had to really contest a struggling industrial state in which voters are focused almost wholly on the economy.

“Barack Obama’s challenge is to relate to average, blue-collar citizens that his message will make a difference in their lives,” said Edwards, whose GOP-leaning central Texas district includes President Bush’s Crawford ranch. “If that message was heard in rural Virginia, it could be a precursor to Texas.”

Among some conservative Democratic politicians last night, there was an almost palpable sense of relief that Obama showed he could win over their constituents — the blue-collar, rural whites who, they feared could bleed over to the GOP in the fall.

“It’s not Senator Clinton’s fault, but the baggage she carries is the divisiveness of the 1990s,” Edwards said. “People are wanting to turn the chapter to the future rather than going back to the last chapter. It’s not fair but that is the reality.”

Since, as a Democratic Congressman, Chet Edwards will be voting as a superdelegate to help decide the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, his views on the matter become even more significant. Although he hasn’t officially endorsed either Clinton or Obama, I wondered if these supportive words indicated that he had decided to vote for Obama. A call to his office, though, revealed that his official position is still that he has no official position. Regardless, his comments certainly insinuate that he’s leaning more toward the Obama camp.

And, for good reason. Obama has a strong across-the-aisle appeal, one that’s based more on his demeanor, outlook, character, inspirational qualities, willingness to work with people across the political spectrum, and apparently genuine desire to heal our nation’s partisan divide than on specific policy positions. Time and time again, I meet conservative Republicans in Texas–and elsewhere–who have a very favorable impression of Obama. Now, I harbor no illusions that these conservative Republicans would actually vote for Obama in a general election or that any Democrat has a chance of carrying Texas in the near future. However, many moderate Republicans and an especially large number of independents would be drawn to Obama in the general election, translating into swing state victories, which will be key for the Democrats to win the Presidency in 2008. It should come as no surprise, then, that primary voters in so many red states and swing states–fully aware of the political realities of Middle America–have chosen Obama.

Now, I know that some of this Republican appeal stems from conservatives’ inexplicably knee-jerk negative reaction to Hillary Clinton, something that is wholly unjustified. However unfortunate but relevant that factor is, the fact remains that Obama has a much broader appeal than Clinton. And, most importantly, he’s cultivated this appeal without selling out any of his core progressive values. When I led the Texas A&M University Democrats as an undergraduate (in the heart of red state America), I couldn’t do enough to hammer this point home: Democrats don’t have to sell out their values to win elections. Instead, Democrats have to first more effectively convince the public of a basic truth–that the values of mainstream Americans and the values of the Democratic Party are synonymous–and then the electoral victories will follow. For too many years, Democrats have tried to play Republican-Light and lost. We saw this begin to change in the 2006 midterm elections, and now the Democrats have a candidate in Barack Obama who truly embodies this ability to appeal broadly without sacrificing fundamental values.

A candidate like that could do pretty well in a general election–and likely won’t disappoint his supporters once he’s in office.