Thursday, February 07, 2008

"Obama: The Shock of the Red"

Tim Eagan, NY Times op-ed:
Take a look at what happened on Tuesday in the nearly all-white counties of Idaho, a place where the Aryan Nations once placed a boot print of hate — “the international headquarters of the white race,” as they called it.
The neo-Nazis are long gone. But in Kootenai County, where the extremists were holed up for several decades, a record number of Democrats trudged through heavy snow on Super Duper Tuesday to help pick the next president. Guess what: Senator Barack Obama took 81 percent of Kootenai County caucus voters, matching his landslide across the state. He won all but a single county.

The runaway victory came after a visit by Obama last Saturday, when 14,169 people filled the Taco Bell Arena in Boise to hear him speak – the largest crowd ever to fill the space, for any event. It was the biggest political rally the state has seen in more than 50 years.

“And they told me there were no Democrats in Idaho,” Obama said.

Okay, so Idaho is the prime rib of Red America. Ditto Utah, where Obama beat Senator Hillary Clinton 56 percent to 39 percent on Tuesday, including a 2-1 win in arguably the most Republican community in America – Provo and suburbs, a holdout of Bush dead-enders. Tom Brady will date a nun before these states vote Democratic in a general election.

But those numbers, and exit polling across the nation, make a case for Obama’s electability and the inroads he has made into places where Democrats are harder to find than a decent bagel. Yes, Hillary-hatred is part of it. But something much bigger is going on among independents and white males, something that can’t all be attributed to fear of a powerful woman in a pantsuit.

Having gone through their Hope versus Experience argument, Democrats are moving on to the numbers phase, looking for advantages in the fall. If they want to parse the Geography of Hope, they can do no better than study what happened in red counties on Tuesday.

Overall, Obama won some big, general election swing states: Colorado, Missouri, Minnesota, and a tie in New Mexico, where they may still be counting votes from the 2004 election. All will be crucial in deciding the next president.

His victory in Colorado, by a 2-1 margin, defied most predictions. Four times as many Democrats turned out as were expected, typical of the passion level elsewhere. In Anchorage, Alaska, for example, traffic was backed for nearly a mile from people trying to get into a middle school to become part of an Obama avalanche.

But back to Colorado. Obama won the liberal enclaves, as expected, but then he nearly ran the table in the western part of the state – ranch and mining country — and he did it with more than Brokeback Mountain Democrats. In booming, energy-rich Garfield County, for instance, Obama beat Clinton 72 percent to 27 percent.

“We won in places nobody thought we could win,” an exultant Federico Pena, the former Denver mayor, told a victory crowd on Tuesday night. Obama’s audience a few days earlier – more than 18,000 — was so big that thousands who couldn’t get in huddled on a frozen lacrosse field to hear him.

Now broaden the picture and look at the vote among white males, traditionally the hardest sell for a Democrat. While losing California, Obama won white men in the Golden State, 55 to 35, according to exit polls, and white men in New Mexico, 59-38.

Looking ahead to Saturday, when Washington State, Nebraska, and Louisiana hold contests, Obama should add another three states to the 13 he won on Tuesday. They’re all caucus states, each with distinct advantages for Obama.

His problem – and it’s a big one – is among Latino voters, and older women. He got crushed by Hillary among Hispanics in California and New Mexico. To win the West, Latinos have to be in your camp.

Only slothful thinkers still view Democrats in the West as Prius-driving latte-sippers along the Left Coast. The larger story is about home-grown identity. Eight of the 11 Western States have Democratic governors. The Democrats picked up two Senate seats in the West in the last two national elections, and are poised to pick up two more this year, in Colorado and New Mexico.

Early on, Obama took a chance on the West, sending paid staffers to places like Boise, Idaho and Wenatchee, Washington. And the Alaska office for Obama – that was a knee-slapper at the time, but no one’s laughing now. He won the Last Frontier state by a 3-1 margin Tuesday.

Obama has made cynics wilt, and stirred the heart of long-dead politicos in places where Democrats haven’t had a pulse in years. Cecil Andrus, the eagle-headed eminence of Idaho, a former governor and Democratic cabinet member, nearly lost his voice introducing Obama in Boise on Saturday. He recalled a time when he was a young lumberjack who drove down the Clearwater Valley to see Jack Kennedy speak in Lewiston, a day that changed his life.

“I’m older now, some would suggest in the twilight of a mediocre political career,” Andrus said. “I, like you, can still be inspired. I can still hope.”

This kicked off the second biggest political rally in Idaho history. And the first? That was when President Dwight Eisenhower came to visit. Last week his granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, made a small bit of family history on her own. She said that if Obama is the nominee, “this lifelong Republican will work to get him elected.”

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