It was hard to know where the good news ended for Barack Obama as results piled in from the Potomac. There was no question that Obama would dominate in DC and Maryland. But his overwhelming romp in Virginia — one of a handful of formerly “red” states that are toss-ups for 2008 — made the best case yet that the Illinois senator just might live up to his promise of blasting the red-blue electoral map to smithereens come November. Meanwhile, the surprising Republican results in Virginia, where Mike Huckabee gave John McCain a scare, bolstered Obama’s argument just as effectively. It wasn’t a shock that McCain fared poorly among right-wing Christians and the sorts of NASCAR Republicans who’ve been guffawing happily this week over the revelation that the genial theocrat from Arkansas consumed fried squirrel from a popcorn popper during his heck-raising college days. But the results underscored an undercurrent that defies conventional wisdom: McCain’s shakiness among the very voters — suburban independents — who are supposed to be his ace in the hole.
|Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL)|
Obama was winning over all kinds of Virginians he was not supposed to. And McCain was losing some of those he absolutely has to have — and losing them in a state that he has to carry to have any chance of becoming president. Like Missouri and Colorado, both of which Obama won last week, Virginia can make a valid case for being one of the “next Ohios” of 2008 — the next ideologically mixed, demographically topsy-turvy state where Republicans will have to fight mighty hard to defend their turf. With the influx of non-native professional types and Hispanic immigrants into Northern Virginia in recent decades, the Old Dominion has become a thoroughly Middle American state of the 21st century in terms of its politics — a lively mash-up of conservative Christians, Blue State liberals, rural populists and swelling ranks of independents (more than one-third of Virginians no longer register D or R). Virginia is American politics in miniature And that is what makes the results — on both sides — so revealing. Obama won pretty much every constituency where he’s presumed to be weakest: women (58 percent in rough exit polls), rural voters (60 percent), Latinos (55 percent) and folks without college educations (63 percent). He won handily among people who think Iraq matters most, who think health care matters most, and who think the economy matters most. He took more than 60 percent of the vote among those making both less and more than $50,000. Obama narrowly carried the white vote in Virginia, continuing to build on his momentum among the notoriously stubborn Caucasian Democrats of Dixie — having won 25 percent of white votes in South Carolina (when the race was still three-way) and then bucked it up to 43 percent in Georgia last week. He also won the most stubborn demographic in Virginia: whites over 65. Only white women went for Clinton, and by nowhere near Obama’s 16-point margin among white men. As Democrats look forward to a match-up with McCain, one set of numbers sticks out from the rest: Obama nearly doubled Clinton’s vote among white independents in Virginia, winning 63 percent. Meanwhile, in the single most stunning number of the night, McCain actually lost among independents who cast their ballots in the Republican primary. His margin of victory came not from independents, but from Republicans — a terrible omen for his “electability.” Huckabee also beat McCain in those bastions of independent (but also, of megachurch) votes in the suburbs, while Obama was pulling 60 percent of suburbanites on the other side. The other prime indicators of how independents might vote in November looked equally good for Obama and lousy for McCain: While Obama won big with under-45 voters, who are the most likely to register independent, McCain lost big among the youngest voters (under 30) while taking 47 percent of the 30-44 age group. To add just one more bit of sour news for McCain, fewer independents voted in the Republican primary in Virginia this year — 76 percent of the voters were card-carrying GOPers, as opposed to just 63 percent in 2000. On the night when McCain vanquished his last remaining (long-shot) competitor, Republican voters made one thing painfully evident: They’d like nothing more than a do-over of this whole nomination business. Preferably with an entirely different cast of candidates. The optimistic-but-fretful Democrats soldier on toward March 4, when Obama gets a chance to deliver knockout punches in Ohio and Texas. It’s still presumptuous — as the change-monger himself likes to say — to count Clinton out. Obama will have to earn those victories, and earn them in the most valuable way — by selling himself to two vital groups of purple-state folks he hasn’t convinced yet: white economic populists in Ohio (who tend to vote a whole lot like white Southerners) and Latinos all across the Lone Star state. But a distinct pattern has already emerged: Obama runs stronger in states where the party has an historic chance to win back the middle — states like Iowa, Missouri, Colorado, and now Virginia. Purple America is ready, and eager, for Obama. His popularity with young voters, independents and suburbanites could very well translate into an overwhelming general-election victory. As for McCain — who is being hectored to pander even more to the GOP’s right-wingnuts, his chances seem to boil down to one increasingly improbable headline: “Hillary Clinton Wins Democratic Nomination.” Bob Moser is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine. His book about Democrats and the South will be published in Summer 2008 by Times Books. Copyright © 2008 The Nation