The question on the Republican side: Can Sen. John McCain reunite the party?
The question on the Democratic side: Who has a better chance of defeating McCain in November, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama?
Both questions have a lot to do with how the campaigns have been playing out in rural communities.
Sen. Obama has been making the argument that he is less divisive than Sen. Clinton — that he could better appeal to the Republican voters who live outside the major cities. Nobody knows what will actually happen in a race against McCain, but in Tuesday’s primary Obama’s strength was within the most Democratic counties.
The stronger a community’s Democratic vote was in the 2004 presidential race, the stronger Obama ran against Clinton last Tuesday.
The chart above shows the relationship between Obama’s percentage of the vote in California counties on February 5, 2008 and Kerry’s percentages against George W. Bush, Nov. 2, 2004. (Obama’s vote percentage is in the up-and-down axis, Kerry’s along the horizontal axis.) You can see that Obama’s margins against Clinton were higher, generally, in the same counties where Kerry’s margins were higher in ’04. Simply, the more historically Democratic the county, the higher the vote for Obama.
Clinton, meanwhile, won California as a whole. And her margin of victory over Obama tended to be higher in the counties that in 2004 voted more strongly for Republican George W. Bush.
The same pattern held true in Missouri, a state Obama won Tuesday. Again, Obama’s vote margin was the highest in the strongest Democratic counties — and then tailed off against Clinton in counties (many of them rural) that voted for Bush in 2004.
Clinton, meanwhile, gathered more votes in the “red” parts of Missouri.
What does this mean? The evidence certainly plays against type. Obama has run a campaign based largely on his ability to transcend partisanship, to bring together “red” and “blue” communities. Yet his campaign thus far has been successful largely because he’s drawing large numbers of voters from the most Democratically partisan communities in the country. San Francisco County has grown more Democratic in every election since 1976, and in 2004 Kerry won more than 80 percent. Obama won San Francisco County Tuesday with more than 52 percent of the vote. (Clinton got 44 percent.) Clinton, meanwhile, did better in more rural counties in inland California.
Clinton’s pollsters see this trend as evidence that the New York senator is really the better candidate to win voters teetering between the parties. She has the ability to reach into Republican areas and pull votes, they say. One voter-targeting firm has found that Obama supporters are bright blue voters — while those attracted to Clinton are more moderate.
(Two columnists have described this split in consumer terms. David Brooks of the New York Times says the Democratic contest is split between a “commodity” provider, Clinton, and an “experience” deliverer, Obama. The first is Safeway, the second is Whole Foods. Gerald Baker of The Times of London says the Democrats are split between latte liberals and Dunkin’ Donut Democrats.)
The Obama camp describes the campaign as more of a “movement” than an election. They point to Obama’s success in attracting strong supporters in deeply Republican parts of Colorado and Idaho — two caucus states — as evidence that Obama will be able to make inroads into McCain’s vote come November.
The difference between Obama and Clinton supporters is largely one of style and geography — Obama’s strength is in the big cities. Emory University political science professor Alan Abramowitz compared Clinton and Obama voters in California and found them to be ideologically similar. (Obama’s supporters were slightly more liberal on issues.)
That is not true within the Republican Party. Abramowitz found that Mitt Romney voters in California were far to the right of McCain supporters. In Abramowitz’s political scale ranging from liberal to conservative, he found that 40 percent of Romney’s voters placed themselves on the most conservative end of the spectrum. Only 12 percent of McCain’s supporters were similarly conservative.
So, Abramowitz concludes:
“These results suggest that despite clinching his party’s nomination much earlier than his Democratic opponent, John McCain may face a more difficult challenge in uniting his party’s voters than either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Because supporters of Clinton and Obama have almost identical ideological preferences, it should not be difficult for either group to unite behind the other candidate if he or she wins the nomination. The winning candidate will not need to move to the left or right in order to win over supporters of the defeated candidate.
“John McCain, however, may be forced to move further to the right in the next few weeks in order to win over disappointed supporters of Mitt Romney. In fact, this is precisely the course of action that is being urged on him by conservative spokesmen and it appears to be what he was attempting to do in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, a group that he shunned only a year ago. But this may be a risky strategy for McCain since it will delay if not prevent him from moving back to the center to appeal to independents and swing voters in the general election—a move that will be crucial if he is to have any chance of winning in November.”