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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Jim Webb and the Scots-Irish Vote

This seems to be Jim Webb Week in the political media, in part due to the publication of the Virginia Senator’s new book, A Time To Fight. In my post yesterday reciting the pros and cons of Webb as a potential running-mate for Barack Obama, I mentioned the theory of some that the distinguished historian of the Scots-Irish-American people might help Obama with those Appalachian voters among whom he has famously been trounced by Hillary Clinton in a series of Democratic primaries. This matters because of the political clout of Appalachians in at least four potential general-election battleground states (OH, PA, WV and VA).
I thought it might be useful to examine Webb’s own electoral pull among Appalachian voters in his one electoral contest, his narrow victory over George Allen in 2006. And as I suspected, Webb didn’t do that well among his Scots-Irish lundsmen, winning mainly due to his electoral strength in urban Virginia and the Northern Virginia suburbs.
It’s particularly interesting to compare Webb’s electoral profile in Appalachia to that of the previous two successful Democratic statewide candidates, Mark Warner (a WASPY neoliberal gazillionaire from NoVa), and Tim Kaine (a Catholic civil rights lawyer from Richmond). Here are links to county-by-county maps (with clickable popular vote numbers and percentages) for Warner in 2001, Kaine in 2005, and Webb in 2006.
Webb did a bit better than Kaine in Appalachia, winning five counties to Kaine’s four, and running slightly ahead of him in several other counties. But that differential must be offset by the fact that Kaine was running against a Republican (Jerry “No Relation” Kilgore) whose electoral base was in SW Virginia.
Moreover, Webb’s peformance lagged far behind that of Mark Warner, who (astonishingly) actually carried SW Virginia in a key component of his statewide win over Jim Gilmore (the man he also faces in this year’s Senate contest).
Now personallly, it comes as no surprise to me that Jim Webb’s strong personal identification with the Scots-Irish heritage didn’t pull a lot of votes. The Scots-Irish are probably this country’s least self-conscious identifiable ethnic group. As it happens, my own background is pretty similar to Webb’s, and I can tell you that none of my extended family have any idea that they are Scots-Irish. Yes, in Appalachia proper, a lot of people self-identify as “mountain folk” or even “hillbillies,” but most have little more than a dim idea that many of their ancestors were lowland Scots who spent a century or two doing England’s dirty work in Northern Ireland, before emigrating to America through Pennsylvania and scattering down through the mountain passes southward and westward. And in the vast Scots-Irish diaspora that stretches from the uplands of South Carolina across the continent to central and southern California, those with any self-conscious identity at all are much more likely to think of themselves as “crackers” or “peckerwoods” or “Okies” than as the subjects of Jim Webb’s loving literary attentions.
But what impresses me most about the Virginia electoral numbers above isn’t Jim Webb’s relative weakness in Appalachia, but Mark Warner’s overwhelming strength in a region where he had no natural advantages. Outside Virginia, Warner’s 2001 rural voter coup was almost invariably attributed (with a lot of encouragement from the celebrity redneck strategist Mudcat Sanders) to cultural “cues”‘ like his sponsorship of a NASCAR entry, his bluegrass campaign song, and those “Sportsmen For Warner” signs that sprouted up far off the interstates. As a resident of rural Virginia in 2001, my own very strong impression is that the cultural stuff kept the door open for Warner, but he sealed the deal with a fiscal and economic message that appealed to people who felt left behind by the go-go economy of the 1990s, and ignored by the politicians in Richmond. People, in other words, a lot like those Appalachian voters who are up for grabs in the 2008 presidential election.
What you say to Appalachians, in other words, may matter as much or more than who you are–a lesson taught by Warner, and for that matter, by Hillary Clinton, the Seven-Sisters-Educated feminist daughter of suburban Chicago, who has done pretty well among mountain folk this year. And in the end, that’s good news for Barack Obama, who ought to be able–with or without Jim Webb’s help–to articulate an economic message more appealing to the forgotten people of the uplands than anything John McCain can muster.

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