Without his huge margins in southern cities, Sen. Barack Obama would be far behind his opponent, Sen. Hillary Clinton, in the race for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. The Illinois senator won the South’s urban areas in landslides — by more than 20 percentage points — and is now all but assured of his party’s nomination.

The Yonder set off last week to determine if Obama had an “Appalachian problem,” the catch phrase used to describe his dismal showings in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia. In a number of articles, analysts have asserted that the particular cultural and ethnic make up of Appalachian counties led to Obama’s overwhelming defeats there.

We did, in fact, find that, in most cases, Obama fared worse in Appalachian counties than in rural counties with comparable racial make-up outside the region. Sen. Clinton won 62 percent of the vote in Appalachian counties. (We used the Appalachian Regional Commission’s list.) These counties, however, produced only 11 percent of the total vote in the 31 primaries we studied.

Appalachia isn’t the only region where one of the Democratic candidates scored a lopsided victory. But nobody has mentioned Sen. Clinton’s “Southern city problem.” Sen. Obama won the Southern cities by about the same margin that Clinton won Appalachia — and urban areas in the South delivered more than twice the number of votes as were cast in all of Appalachia.

Sen. Obama’s slim popular vote lead over Clinton in this study is due entirely to his landslide margins in the urban South. Clinton won Appalachia by 750,000 votes. Obama won southern cities by almost double that number.

Obama trails Clinton in the popular vote in every region but the South, according to the Yonder’s analysis. And Clinton does far better than Obama in a large group of swing counties — those communities that voted for Democrat Bill Clinton in 1996 but for George W. Bush in 2004. Meanwhile, Obama does better than Clinton in strong Democratic counties and in counties where the two parties were closely competitive in 1996 and 2004.

The Yonder analysis shows Clinton and Obama to be evenly matched candidates backed by different kinds of communities. Obama takes the cities, while Clinton wins in rural and exurban communities. Obama wins the South, but loses in the other three large regions of the country. And even though the two candidates are virtually tied in popular votes, almost half the voters in contested primaries live in communities where either Obama or Clinton won by a landslide of more than 20 percentage points.

The Yonder’s study analyzed the votes in 31 states. We excluded states that weren’t fully contested — the caucus states, Florida and Michigan. We excluded home states of the candidates: Illinois, New York and Arkansas. And we didn’t count the non-binding primaries in Nebraska and Washington. Our intent was to discover where the two Democrats are strongest and weakest outside of their home bases.

Here is what we found:

Sen. Obama wins only the South, and only the cities within the South. We divided the 31 states into geographic regions according to U.S. Census definitions and then counted votes in the contested primaries.* Obama lost three out of the four regions, winning only the large group of 13 southern states. Within the South, Obama only won the cities, but that vote was large enough to wipe out Clinton’s advantages across the rest of the country. Sen. Obama won southern urban areas with more than 60 percent of the vote, running up a 1.44 million vote margin. Most of Obama’s advantage came from just 27 urban counties in the South. (Three of these strong Obama counties are in Appalachia.)

*(Here are the primary states we counted in their Census regions. NORTHEAST: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. SOUTH: Alabama, Washington, D.C., Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia. MIDWEST: Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin. WEST: Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah.)

Sen. Clinton won rural areas in all four Census regions.
Clinton’s largest margins were in the rural South, where she won 58 percent of the vote. The largest division within the Democratic primary was between the rural and the urban South. Sen. Obama won the urban South, the exurban West and the urban Midwest. He lost every other geographic grouping to Clinton.

To better understand where each candidate gained an advantage, we broke down each Census region into rural, exurban and urban counties. The list below shows where the candidates gained votes in their head-to-head contest.

Census RegionCommunityMargin over Clinton
Census RegionCommunityMargin over Obama

Sen. Obama did best in counties that were closely contested in 1996 and in 2004 and in counties that were strongly Democratic in both those elections. Obama won 56 percent of the closely contested counties, and he won 53 percent of the vote in reliably Democratic counties.

Sen. Clinton overwhelmed Obama in the 545 counties that voted for her husband in 1996 but for George Bush in 2004. She won more than 60 percent of the vote in these swing counties. She also beat Obama in counties that voted Republican in the last several national elections.

Sen. Clinton had the largest vote totals in counties where the average median household income was below the national median. Sen. Obama had the most votes in counties with households incomes above the national median. Clinton’s margin was built in poorer Appalachian counties, where she won 71 percent of the vote. Obama won 52 percent of the vote in the poor counties outside Appalachia.

Sen. Clinton did exceptionally well in Appalachian counties.
In Appalachian counties with few African-American residents, Clinton won over 70 percent of the vote. In non-Appalachian counties with small black populations, Clinton won a little over 50 percent of the vote. (The difference was statistically significant.) In the small number of Appalachian counties with large black populations, there was no difference in the outcome compared to non-Appalachian counties with large number of African-American residents.

Turnout increased later in the primary season. On Super Tuesday in early February, the turnout in the Democratic primaries was 16 percent of eligible voters. In the last round of primaries (Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky and Oregon), the turnout jumped to 22.6% of eligible voters.

Obama and Clinton were tied in counties with above average Hispanic populations. Exit polls have shown Clinton winning the Hispanic vote, but she hasn’t done particularly well in counties with above average Hispanic population. (The average Hispanic population for counties in the 31 state is 7.3 percent.) Clinton lost urban areas with large Hispanic populations. She won rural counties with above average Hispanic populations with 60 percent of the vote.

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