Thursday, May 1, 2008

Barack Obama's Electability Post Pennsylvania

Barack Obama's 54.6%-45.4% defeat to Hillary Clinton in the Pennsylvania primary did nothing to dispel the notion that he is the weakest presidential nomination front runner in the primary system era (that is, since 1976). His defeat marked the third consecutive defeat in a major state and the margin in Pennsylvania was similar to the 10.3% margin he suffered in Ohio. More importantly, the same geographical split between central city and countryside observed in a number of previous primary states remained well defined in Pennsylvania. Although Obama won the overall urban vote in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh by a 57%-43% margin (carrying Philadelphia by a 65%-35% margin), he was swamped in the remainder of the state:

Obama received less than 40% of the vote outside of these two major urban centers. For comparison, the results for Ohio for the remainder of the state outside of the urban centers of Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati are noted below:

The results in the two states are within 0.2 percentage points of each other. Since the urban center vote share was 32% of the total statewide vote in Pennsylvania and 31% in Ohio, this similarity appears to reflect the same dynamic at work in both states. And, since these primaries were six weeks apart, it is clear that Obama was unable to reach beyond his narrow urban constinuency between early March and late April.

I noted in my previous post on this topic that little was being said concerning Obama's inability to make significant headway outside of central city areas. Since then, and especially since the Pennsylvania primary results, it seems to be the only thing on people's minds. However, while I have focused on the geographical aspect of this difference, many people are casting this difference in terms of race and class.

When the effect of race on the Democratic presidential battle is discussed, the discussion invariably revolves around the seeming reluctance of White voters to support Obama because of his race. As Adam Nagourney asked in a recent NYT piece,

Why has [Obama] been unable to win over enough working-class and white voters to wrap up the Democratic nomination? . . . The composition of Mrs. Clinton’s support — or, looked at another way, the makeup of voters who have proved reluctant to embrace Mr. Obama — has Democrats wondering, if not worrying, about what role race may be playing.

Curiously, Nagourney himself provides evidence in his article that the role of race may be overemphasized. According to the Pennsylvania exit poll quoted by Nagourney, 18% of Democrats stated that race mattered to them in the contest and that "just" 63% of such voters said that they would support Sen. Obama in the general election. This seems significant until one reads on just a bit further:

The exit poll found that 69 percent of white Democrats would vote for Mr. Obama in a general election campaign over Mr. McCain; 73 percent of black Democrats said they would vote for Mrs. Clinton over Mr. McCain.

The 4 percentage point difference between White Democrats who said they would support Sen. Obama in the fall and Black Democrats who said they would support Sen. Clinton in the fall is small and likely statistically insignificant. Taken in this light, the fact that 63% of voters who stated that race was important to them and that they would vote for Obama in the fall suggests that these voters attitudes are not terribly different percentage either from that of White or Black voters in general for the candidate of whose race different from theirs. But in fact, race did matter in matter in Pennsylvania as evidenced by the fact that 90% of Black voters there voted for Obama. Because further discussion on this topic will put us outside of the central themes I want to cover in this post, I will save a further discussion on this for later.

Instead, I will move on to the issue of class, for I think that this is in fact the most important factor determining Obama's difficulties with voters outside of central urban areas. The best determinate of class in America is education. Exit poll data showing presidential preference by four levels of education were available for eight of the nine states (excluding Maryland) used in our previous analysis (see "Barack Obama's Achilles Heel"). The education levels available in the polling data included high school graduates, some college, college graduate and post-graduate. Note that "some college" would include college students that had not yet received their degree as well as those with 2-year degrees and those who never completed their studies. Note that for some states data on voters with less than a high school degree were available, but for most states sample sizes for such voters were too small for the results to be included in the released data.

I used the exit poll data to estimate the number of votes for each candidate for each level of education in each state and then combined the results across the eight states for each of the four groups. Because the results for college graduates and post-graduates were nearly the same, I combined these two groups into a single group. The figure below shows the voting share across the eight states for the resulting three education levels:

These shares are similar to those recorded in the 2004 general election suggesting that these results may be representative of the voting distribution in the upcoming general election. College grads represent the largest percentage of voters; voters with only a high school degree represent only a quarter of all voters.

Note that the two candidates split the total vote across these three education levels in the eight states nearly equally (Clinton 50.2% - Obama 49.8%) suggesting that this sample of states is likely to be reasonably representative of the nation as a whole. However, Obama recorded a comfortable 10.6 percentage point margin over Clinton among college graduates:

The candidates are nearly evenly split among those with at least some college:

Given that some in this group are current college students that will in time finish their degree and that this subset of the group appear to strongly support Obama, it is likely that Clinton has a modest but real advantage among those with some college but who will never receive a four-year degree.

Her advantage is decisive among that quarter of the electorate with only a high school diploma:

Clinton's margin among those voters with only a high school diploma and no college experience is nearly 19 percentage points. This group of voters represents the heart of the American working class and rank among the most economically vulnerable in American society today. Their incomes are stagnant or falling in real terms, their job security is being slowly eroded and they feel increasingly marginalized. Barack Obama is clearly not speaking to these people.

Instead, he speaks to the secure, the well educated, he speaks to those for whom the word "expectation" is more relevant than the word "hope". Just take a look at this video clip of his concession speech in Evansville, Indiana the night of the Pennsylvania primary. Notice the three young men at the top of the screen. Each is wearing Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirts, the uniform of, as a (self?) described "retail anthropologist" sez:

They [Abercrombie and Fitch consumers] are part of the young, hip, privileged culture rather than aspiring to it.

It doesn't seem that the less educated, less hip fit in here. In attempting to appeal to white voters, Obama's handlers put behind him a symbol of the haves on the night he was soundly defeated in the Pennsylvania primary. This is his problem in a nutshell.

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