Obama’s Permanent “Appalachia And The Upland South” Problem

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Republicans have been giddy over Obama's "embarrassing results" in Democratic primaries in West Virginia, Arkansas, and Kentucky. Alec MacGillis rolls his eyes

Obama certainly is a vulnerable incumbent, as suggested by the latest national polling showing him only slightly ahead of Mitt Romney. But Kentucky and Arkansas offer little in the way of affirmation. For the hundredth time, let me suggest that people take a look at this map [see above]. It shows the counties where Obama in 2008 got a lower share of the general election vote than John Kerry had four years earlier, even as Obama did vastly better than Kerry nationwide. It is a virtually contiguous band of territory stretching from southwestern Pennsylvania through Appalachia and across the Upland South, finally petering out in north-central Texas. It is, almost to a T, what Colin Woodard, in his fascinating new ethnographic history of North America, American Nations, defined as the territory of the "Borderlanders" — the rough-hewn Scots-Irish who arrived in this country from the "borderlands" of northern Ireland and Scotland, and claimed for themselves the inland hill country, far from the snooty Northeastern elites and Southern gentry. And look more closely at the map — where was Obama's 2008 dropoff particularly heavy? In eastern Kentucky and most of Arkansas.

Keep in mind: this was at the peak of Obama's popularity.

It was before he began his "war on coal," before Obamacare, before all the things that pundits will point to to explain why this part of the country is so dead set against the president. And yet he did worse in this region than Kerry, who's not exactly Johnny Of The Ozarks. The easy explanation for this is obvious, but I don't think it's actually all that simple. The more complicated answer is that this region has been shifting away from the Democrats at the national level for more than a decade now, as the national party has become more identified with highly-educated elites — a trend that Barack Obama accelerated because, well, he's a highly-educated elite. But many voters in these parts still identify as Democrats, unlike their fellow conservatives in the Deep South, and so they turn out to vote in Democratic primaries.