Stateline Story

Obama's Friends in Unlikely Places

  • February 12, 2008
  • By Louis Jacobson

One of the more striking patterns to emerge from Super Tuesday's primaries and caucuses - and Nebraska's last weekend - is how thoroughly U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) triumphed in the very red states of the Great Plains and Mountain West.

His winning margins were impressive. On Feb. 5, Obama beat U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in Utah, 57 percent to 39 percent; in North Dakota, 61 percent to 37 percent; in Kansas, 74 percent to 26 percent; in Alaska, 75 percent to 25 percent; and in Idaho, a whopping 79 percent to 17 percent. Four days later, he bested Clinton 68 percent to 32 percent in Nebraska.

It's not as if these states are bursting with the kind of people buoying the Obama candidacy nationally, such as African Americans and urban, affluent liberals. "Check out the state party's spreadsheet on caucus votes and you'll find Obama winning nearly everywhere, and strongly, from the smallest, most remote and most Republican counties to the larger, more competitive population centers," said Randy Stapilus, a political analyst who writes about Idaho and the Pacific Northwest.

So what explains Obama's ability to trounce Clinton in these GOP bastions by massive margins?

Exit poll data is thin to nonexistent. But state-based analysts point to several factors contributing to the Obama boom in what - except for Utah - were caucuses rather than primaries.

He showed up

Clinton simply didn't hit the hustings the way Obama did. Obama visited Kansas, the state where his mother's family lived, and won heavy media coverage. He visited Utah twice last year, and his wife Michelle made an appearance just before Super Tuesday. "There was a sense that the candidate cared about Utah," said Bill Keshlear, the communications director for the Utah Democratic Party.

Most strikingly, perhaps, Obama drew some 15,000 people on short notice for an early Saturday morning event in Boise. It was the first visit by a top-tier Democratic candidate to Idaho since a 1976 appearance by then-U.S. Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho). But he lived in Boise.

He energized the youth vote

In North Dakota, the party set up caucuses at four of the state's colleges and universities, and a typical result was at North Dakota State University in Fargo: Obama 1,139, Clinton 310. In a caucus, which draws fewer voters than a primary, it's easier for an energized bloc, such as students, to shape the final result.

In Utah, state party officials broke down the primary's exit polls and found that "youth turnout was much, much higher than at any other time," Keshlear said.

He assembled a strong on-the-ground organization

In Kansas, Obama began in early fall with a single office in the university town of Lawrence; by the time of the caucus, he had 18 paid staffers on the ground, far more than Clinton had, said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist. Obama's organization helped shepherd a host of other "surrogates" around the state, including former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Gov. Jim Doyle (D-Wis.) and several members of Congress from Minnesota, added Dan Watkins, an Obama organizer in Kansas.

In North Dakota, Obama was successful because "he put 10 full-time staff in North Dakota, and they organized a great grassroots campaign," said Rick Gion, the state Democratic Party's communications director.

Indeed, in some red states, the Obama operation, flush with cash and volunteers, exceeded the capabilities of the state party. "One of the reasons so many - seemingly, virtually all - active Democratic politicians in the state signed on with Obama is that they're hoping for access to that organization and what it entails," Stapilus said. "Obama's organization right now stands as one of the best that Idaho Democrats have seen in many years."

He isn't Hillary Clinton

It can't be underestimated how disliked Hillary Clinton is in the Mountains and Plains states. "Clinton fatigue is real," said Dave Dittman, a GOP pollster in Alaska.

Rebecca Braun, publisher of the Alaska Budget Report, said Democrats in very red states "instinctively shy away from Democratic candidates who reek of the party machine." She added: "It's a widely practiced sport in these states to demonize prominent Democrats, especially 'East Coast liberals,' and Clinton is clearly perceived that way here."

Anecdotally at least, the Obama surge in these states does not appear to have ideological roots. Herm Olsen, an attorney and Democratic activist in Logan, Utah, said, "I think people out here are so starved for somebody" different from George W. Bush "that they'll vote for Obama happily, rather than endorse the same-old-same-old, be they a Democrat or a Republican."

On a more practical level, there is widespread - albeit quietly expressed - concern among Democratic officials in very red states that having Clinton on top of the ballot could hurt the party's prospects for winning or keeping lower offices.

In Nebraska, "clearly, Mrs. Clinton would have negative down ballot effects statewide, and Sen. Obama would not have that effect, especially in Omaha and Lincoln, the state's two largest cities where most of the registered Democrats live," said former U.S. Rep. Hal Daub (R-Neb.).

Idaho public television journalist Joan Cartan-Hansen said Republicans are concerned about Obama's popularity because they think that "if Clinton gets the nomination, every Republican in Idaho will turn out to vote against her and any other Democrats. Obama wouldn't be that kind of a lightning rod."

In the general election, Obama still is unlikely to win over these traditionally Republican enclaves. But if he leads the Democratic ticket, the Obama effect could be felt there in down ballot races. In North Dakota, for instance, Democrats hope an Obama wave could help them take over the state Senate, where Democrats currently trail by a 26-21 margin.

Democratic Party officials report a boon in voter names and volunteers, complementing chairman Howard Dean's 50 State Strategy of investing money and personnel in solidly red states.

"The presidential campaign has allowed us to assemble a database of people willing to give their time and money to a campaign," said Keshlear of the Utah Democratic Party. "We're recruiting candidates at a level that hasn't really existed here in the last 30 years.

Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Call newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Call, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report .