The “Greater Appalachia” Issue

I wrote earlier today about the many people who are trying to string together scattered indicia of Democratic discontent with Barack Obama into a party “split” or some sort of dire threat to his re-election prospects–without any real data. But there are a few analysts trying to be a little more, well, analytical. One of them is Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics, who is a Republican, but who does always look for empirical and historial evidence before reaching conclusions.

Sean’s take on the “protest vote” again Obama in this year’s presidential primaries in the Appalachian territory where he’s never been popular as potentially significant for two reasons (he actually gives a third reason, which I won’t go into because it’s an argument with a book published in 2002). The first, which he considers significant only if you believe (which he doesn’t) that Obama’s success in avoiding a major-candidate primary challenge is a very big deal, is that this anti-Obama vote among Democrats is a danger sign roughly equivalent to that which faced George H.W. Bush in 1992, when Pat Buchanan’s primary challenge briefly looked formidable. That’s sort of a random connection Sean’s making there, but for the sake of argument, lets say the two situations are analogous. What kind of damage does each reflect? At this point in 1992, Bush 41’s job approval rating among Republicans was 66%. Obama’s among Democrats currently is at 84%. That’s a pretty big gap, and another indication that any Democratic “disgruntlement” with Obama is limited.

Trende’s second argument is that the poor Obama showing in “Appalachian” primaries may not matter in those states, which are certain to go Republican anyway, but could be echoed in similar “Greater Appalachian” segments of adjoining competitive states–notably Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina. That could be true, of course, but it’s not self-evident. There were, after all, Democratic primaries in those states this year as well, and Obama did not lose any counties, Appalachian or otherwise, in any of them. And it is not as though Obama over-performed in these same areas in 2008, and is now coming back to earth as voters decide he’s hostile to unlimited development of coal or does not share their background, culture, or race. It is interesting that in a map of counties where Obama performed more poorly in 2008 than John Kerry did in 2004, counties in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennnesse and Arkansas stand out, but not so much the adjoining counties in battleground states; it’s entirely reasonable to assume that Democratic campaigning made a difference in those, as it well might in 2012.

More to the point, polling in the battleground states we are talking about has shown Obama performing about as well today as in 2012, considering it is a somewhat tigher race nationally. The–ahem!–RealClearPolitics average of polls show Obama up 5% in Ohio (where he won by 4% in 2008), 3% in Virginia (6% in 2008), and 7% in Pennsylvania (10 % in 2008). Yes, the same indicator shows Romney up 3% in North Carolina (Obama won by an eyelash in 2008), but the lead has been see-sawing in various polls. You’d think if there was a big significant cratering of Obama support in “Greater Appalachia,” it would showup in statewide surveys. And if it never does–because it doesn’t exist, or is offset by Obama gains in other parts of these states–then who cares? A vote is a vote, which we should all remember when we get too obsessed with small segments of the electorate.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.