Could Obama lose the Arkansas primary?

**Posted by Phineas

I saw this news yesterday and laughed:

A new poll of Arkansas Democrats shows Barack Obama receiving support from only 45 percent of Democratic primary voters in Arkansas’s Fourth Congressional District, while 38 percent support his underfunded and relatively unknown primary challenger, Tennessee lawyer John Wolfe, Jr. Seventeen percent are undecided in the district poll.

In an interview with THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Wolfe said the poll results were “unbelievable” and said a defeat for Obama in the Arkansas primary would be “politically cataclysmic.”

“It says the momentum is good,” Wolfe said about the poll. “This is democracy in action.”

Remember, we’re talking about a primary involving the incumbent president, which almost by definition should be a cakewalk for him. And yet, he faced a strong challenge in West Virginia from a federal prisoner who took 41% of the vote and ten counties. And now with this news from Arkansas, it’s evident that there is deep discontent with Obama in at least certain sectors of the Democrat rank and file. But why?

Brian Bolduc offers an explanation:

The main problem with Obama’s presidency, [primary challenger John] Wolfe argues, is that the chief executive has merely “ratified institutional failures.” The corrupt government in Afghanistan? “He expanded our commitment to it.” Our expensive health-care system? “He made a deal to protect Big Pharma.” The irresponsible lending on Wall Street? “He perpetuated ‘too big to fail.’”

And the reason for Obama’s failure to change Washington stems from his personnel: He surrounds himself with bankers, such as former chief of staff Bill Daley (JP Morgan) and current head staffer Jack Lew (Citibank).

“We need someone who will represent the people, not just bankers,” Wolfe concludes. “He doesn’t visit the South that much, either. He needs to show more concern here.”


Wolfe’s critics might claim that he’s a Republican in disguise, but the candidate says he’s a progressive through and through. He notes that Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, whom he describes as “perfect,” were progressives. “Republicans are not doing what I would like them to do,” Wolfe says. “They weren’t always this way. Even Ford and Nixon would still stand up against industrial waste and pollution. They would stand up against corporate greed.”

The Democratic party, meanwhile, is “immersed too much in identity politics,” Wolfe says. “I don’t necessarily like that. I think my thoughts are traditionally progressive, and those values a long time ago were shared by Democrats and Republicans alike.”

And now that the president has announced his support for same-sex marriage, it’s likely the discontent among southern Democrats will only increase.

In other words, populism and traditional values. The anti-elites and anti-Establishment view of people going through hard times, who look at Obama appointing corporate bigwigs to high office and then jetting off to hobnob with the Hollywood glitterati, and think to themselves, “he just doesn’t represent us. He’s not one of us, and it’s nothing to do with his name or his skin color.” I think we saw something similar yesterday in Nebraska, but mirrored from the Right, when the heretofore little-known State Senator Deb Fischer beat two career politicians for the US Senate nomination.

But I don’t agree with Wolfe that his views are “progressive,” at least not as the progressive movement has evolved in the US. The chords I hear are those of the Populist movement of the late 19th century, which even for a while formed a strong third party and still influences American politics to this day. With the fading of formal Populism, many of these people became Democrats. And it’s the descendents of those same voters who are now shoving a grapefruit in Obama’s face.

Bolduc then quotes a Republican state official in Arkansas to the effect that Obama has trouble in Virginia and North Carolina (1). But it’s more than that, and it’s touched on by Bolduc when he cites Obama’s “Appalachian problem.” While he describes it geographically, the South and southern Appalachians, it’s really cultural.

My friend Salena Zito has written many articles about the politics of the “average White guy,” the Jacksonian Democrat who’s culturally conservative and patriotic, lifelong hard-workers, typically Democratic but voted in big numbers for Reagan. (For a good example, see…) With her focus on eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, we see the same cultural traits that caused Obama pain in neighboring West Virginia and, I’d argue, farther afield in Arkansas.

And it’s here we see the real danger for Obama. To answer the question in the subject line, I don’t think Obama will lose the Arkansas primary. (2) And there’s equally no way he’ll win it in the general.

But, those rumblings from unhappy culturally conservative populist voters in Arkansas and West Virginia are real signs of trouble for him in Ohio and Pennsylvania, states he desperately needs to retain to win. What we’re seeing now may just be foreshocks of a real political earthquake in November.

(1) Frankly, I think he can wave bye-bye to North Carolina, too.
(2) But, if he did, I would laugh like a hyena.

(Crossposted at Public Secrets)

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