One of the more interesting phenomena in the Democratic presidential contest has been the very strong showing of Hillary Clinton (and correspondingly poor showing of Barack Obama) in Appalachia–the stretch of mountain areas in the eastern United States, including much of West Virginina; significant portions of Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, and smaller portions of New York, Ohio, Maryland, South Carolina and Alabama.
I have a personal interest in this story, as someone whose “people” were mostly Scotch-Irish folk who came down the mountain trails from Pennsylvania through the Carolinas to Georgia (two of my great-grandfathers were ministers in that quintessential Appalachian sect, the Primitive Baptists).
In the blogosphere, The DailyKos poster DHinMI has been the most acute in pointing out the geopolitical implications of HRC’s strength in Appalachia, particularly in terms of future primaries in PA, NC, KY and WV.
But the whole Appalachia-for-Hillary story has to be taken with a large grain of salt due to demographic factors that have little or nothing to do with the Scotch-Irish heritage or the Mountain Ethic. Most obviously, Appalachia is a virtually all-white region. Its voting base is also relatively old, and relatively bereft of the upscale, highly educated white voters who have been warm to Obama’s candidacy even in parts of the Deep South. Finally, the Democratic primary vote is low in many parts of Appalachia (outside heavily unionized areas of West Virginia and portions of Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Virginia), where Republican voting loyalties go straight back to the Civil War. And Appalachia is also not much of a fertile territory for political independents, partisanship being a fighting matter for many residents.
Still, overall, in the two Appalachian states I’m most familiar with, Georgia and Virginia, Obama’s percentage of the white vote appears to have been notably lower in mountain counties than elsewhere. This can’t be dismissed simply as a function of racism, given Obama’s better performance among white voters in places like central and southside Virginia, and South Georgia, where politics has always been far more dominated by race. So something’s going on, even if it’s just the natural resistence of Appalachian voters to Obama’s highly nuanced message of progressive bipartisanship as opposed to pure class warfare. Obama’s famous wine-track appeal isn’t terribly communicable to moonshine-track voters.
But I do want to draw attention to, and express some strong doubts about, one recent effort to expand this analysis beyond the Mountains and into the general election. Yesterday Michael Barone published a long article on the US News site that casts the Obama/Clinton divide among white voters as one of “academics versus Jacksonians.”
Barone’s description of pro-Obama white voters as “academics” is obviously a massively distorted over-simplification, made easier by the fact that his account ignores all those lily-white states where Obama trounced Clinton. Are Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming and Idaho Democrats mostly “academics?” I think not.
But his analysis of “Jacksonian” Democrats–used to describe the vast Scotch-Irish diaspora that extends to East Texas, to the Little Texas region of New Mexico, to that country music haven of Bakersville, California–has some merit, marred as it is by almost total reliance on number-of-counties-won as a misleading measure of voter preferences. Working and middle-class white Democrats of southern origin wherever they are do indeed seem to be tilting decisively towards Clinton, if not always by Appalachian-level margins.
It’s Barone’s extrapolation of this trend into the general election–arguably, given his Republican allegiance, the real point of his entire disposition–that’s most questionable. Having established that Obama’s got some problems with “Jacksonians,” Barone pivots to this argument:
Of course, the real Jacksonian in this race is John McCain. He is descended from Scots-Irish fighters who settled in Carroll County, Miss. Former Sen. Trent Lott, who once worked as a fundraiser for the University of Mississippi and therefore knew the folkways of elite types in his state very well, once told me that he had relatives who had known McCain’s relatives in Mississippi. “They were fighters,” he said, as best I can remember his words. “They would never stop fighting you. Those people would never stop fighting.”
Aside from the fact that Barone confuses the conservative, WASPy Delta planter tradition of Ole Miss with the “Jacksonian” tendency in Mississippi and southern politics, the idea that John McCain is catnip to Scotch-Irish “Jacksonians” is highly questionable. If that were the case, you’d think McCain would do particularly well among Scotch-Irish Appalachian voters in Republican primaries, eh?
Remembering that in the definitive GOP primary of 2000, South Carolina, McCain won the non-Scotch-Irish lowlands but decisively lost the Scotch-Irish highlands, I looked at some of the 2004 primary results before the contest was decided and didn’t see any “Jacksonian” longing for McCain. He won exactly one highlands county in SC this time (and by a small plurality over Huckabee and Romney). He lost every single country in mountain Georgia. He lost every single country in mountain Virginia. And in an area where he had a lot of important endorsements, he lost about half of mountain Tennessee (generally getting a little over one-third of the vote). His margins in Appalachian Ohio tracked his statewide totals.
If Obama is the Democratic nominee, he’s got a lot of work to do to reduce Republican margins in Appalachia (that have existed in every presidential election since the Civil War, other than 1932 and 1964). HRC’s got a base of support to work with. But the idea that John McCain is the Chosen Son of the Scotch-Irish in the ancestral mountains and beyond, is at this point just spin.