What’s The Matter With Kentucky?

May 1, 2008 10:56 a.m.

George Packer, who’s blogging now at The New Yorker website, has a post this week about Kentucky — Inez, Kentucky, specifically, the small town where Lyndon Johnson announced the War on Poverty more than 40 years ago and where John McCain made a campaign stop last week. Packer’s point is how Democrats can and cannot appeal to the working class and rural white voters we’ve been discussing so much for the last two months. But the background of the piece is just how readily many white Kentuckians admit that they simply won’t vote for a black man for president.

“I’ve talked to people–a woman who was chair of county elections last year, she said she wouldn’t vote for a black man,” J.K. Patrick told Packer. And he won’t either. “I really don’t want an African-American as President … I thought about it. I think he would put too many minorities in positions over the white race. That’s my opinion. After 1964, you saw what the South did … There’s a lot of white people that just wouldn’t vote for a colored person. Especially older people.”

With frankness like this, it was probably no accident that it was Kentucky Rep. Geoff Davis (R-KY) who got in trouble two weeks ago for calling Obama “that boy” at a GOP party dinner in his home district — a comment for which he later apologized.

And the pattern Packer is as observable statistically as it is anecdotally, where I’ve been noting it for a month or more. SurveyUSA has conducted three polls of the primary race in Kentucky over the last month. In each Hillary Clinton beats Obama by roughly a 2-1 margin. That in itself I do not think tells us that much on the topic of racialized voting. Each candidate has states where they greatly outpoll the other, though that is a steep margin. Where the contrast becomes stark is in the match ups against McCain.

Again, we need to rely exclusively on polls from SurveyUSA. Each sounding shows Clinton losing to John McCain. That’s not surprising since Kentucky is a strongly Republican state, though in mid-April, the most recent poll, she was in a statistical tie with him — 48%-46%. But while Clinton is competitive, McCain beats Obama by a 2 to 1 margins — 63% to 29% in the poll taken last week. I don’t know any state where either Democrat runs that much better than the other. And I think the conclusion that race is the primary factor in the difference is inescapable.

Kentucky itself isn’t that big a deal since it will almost certainly go Republican in November. But it will be a big win for Clinton later this month. And you only need to look at a map to see that Kentucky makes up the southern border of Ohio and Indiana.

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