Sabato’s Crystal Ball: OBAMA AND SMALL-TOWN AMERICA
Barack Obama caused quite a stir a fortnight ago when he told a suburban San Francisco fund raiser that small-town Pennsylvania voters were “bitter” about their economic plight. As a consequence, he added, “they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them…”
As political comments go, it was a self-inflicted “twofer”. Not only was Obama’s sociological analysis delivered in a place synonymous with permissive liberalism, but also it raised questions about the candidate’s sensitivity to the lives of the hard-working, small-town voters that he was so intensively trying to woo.
Yet as controversial as they were, Obama’s remarks basically have reflected the contours of his vote-getting appeal. By and large, he has succeeded thus far by rolling up the vote in urban areas with their large minority population, and penetrating populous white-collar suburbs and the growing exurbs beyond. Yet in many places where new subdivisions give way to countryside, the Obama vote noticeably begins to ebb. There, his only consistent support has come from the occasional oases of academe that dot the rural landscape.
Al Gore showed back in 2000 that a Democrat can narrowly win the fall popular vote with the cities and a fair chunk of the suburbs. Yet to win the electoral vote, their nominee needs to do a bit better. In short, the party has become quite expert at winning 48 percent of the vote, but it takes a special Democrat able to draw votes in small-town America to bring that extra 3 percent that would ensure victory. Quite possibly, Obama has the political skills to do it. But his tepid primary showings in rural parts of key battleground states such as Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania places the burden of proof on him to demonstrate that he can do it.