Image: Barack Obama
Rick Bowmer  /  AP
Sen. Barack Obama greets supporters at a rally Monday in Beloit, Wis., the day before voters in Wisconsin cast their ballots in the state's primary.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 2/19/2008 4:54:53 PM ET 2008-02-19T21:54:53

Theory: Sen. Barack Obama’s victories in the Democratic caucuses in Idaho, Nebraska, and Kansas prove that he has appeal to Republican and independent voters. It also means that he could potentially carry these and other traditionally Republican states in November if he wins the nomination.

So, is it right or wrong? Or perhaps, like many things in politics, it's a theory that's not provable until Election Day?

Sen. Hillary Clinton’s advisor Harold Ickes has ridiculed the notion that Obama could carry Idaho, Nebraska and other Republican strongholds in November if he were the nominee.

Neither Idaho nor Nebraska nor Kansas has gone Democratic in a presidential election since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide.

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Obama “may have won the Democratic vote in Idaho, Nebraska, Kansas, he might even win it in Wyoming, I’m not predicting that,” Ickes said Saturday, adding sardonically to NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell, “They’re all going to be lining up in the Democratic column, aren’t they? I’ll bet over at your TV network they’re just putting them right over in the Democratic column in November.”

He added, “Those states are simply are not going to vote this year for a Democratic president.”

Idaho, Nebraska sideshows
In one sense, Idaho and Nebraska are sideshows: if Democrats carry those states in November, they’ll likely carry 45 others and it will be a landslide comparable to Johnson’s '64 victory.

Video: The Obama way of campaigning

But, more likely, the decisive battlegrounds will be states that are evenly balanced between the parties, such as Virginia, Missouri and Wisconsin, which holds its Democratic primary Tuesday.

If the Republican presidential candidate were to lose Virginia and Missouri in November, it would probably be fatal.

In making the case that Obama can win independents and Republicans, Obama’s best friend has been exit poll data from states where primaries and caucus have been held.

In Missouri, for example, according to exit poll interviews, 22 percent of those who voted in the Feb. 5 Democratic primary said they were independents.

Among those voters, two-thirds of them told exit poll interviewers they voted for Obama.

But exit poll data is based on interviews with a sample of voters who agree to talk about their vote.

When pressed on how they have voted in past elections, self-described independents often turn out to be people who habitually vote for candidates of one party, even if they still think of themselves as not affiliated with that party.

Actual votes in GOP counties
Fortunately, there is hard evidence of actual votes.

Let’s take Missouri, for instance. Obama won the Missouri primary with 49 percent of the vote.

Even though Obama won statewide, in the most Republican congressional district in the state, the Seventh, he fared poorly. 

This is a district where President Bush beat 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry by better than two to one. The voters in this congressional district are more conservative than Obama’s voting record indicates that he is.

The man who represents this district is House Republican Whip Roy Blunt, who has a 100 percent rating from the leading anti-abortion group, the National Right to Life Committee. In contrast, based on votes in the Senate since he took office in 2005, Obama has a National Right to Life rating of zero. Blunt’s American Conservative Union rating is 88 out of 100; Obama’s ACU score is 8.

In the eight counties that are entirely within Blunt’s district, Obama got 34 percent of the Democratic vote, losing every county to Clinton.

Video: A misstep for Obama? Obama got a total of about 25,000 votes, 12,000 fewer than Clinton won. In these counties, Obama did get more votes among Democrats than John McCain got among Republicans, but the Republican winner in these eight counties was Mike Huckabee with nearly 40,000 votes.

But expecting Obama to do well in the most conservative part of Missouri may be unrealistic.

So how about his performance in a mostly rural district which Bush carried in 2004 but where voters have long shown willingness to vote for a Democrat?

Where Ike Skelton wins
Look at Missouri’s Fourth Congressional District, which Democrat Rep. Ike Skelton has represented for 30 years. Skelton voted for a constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage and for a ban on the procedure known as partial birth abortion.

In the counties entirely within Skelton’s district, Obama won 9,584 votes, about 7,200 fewer than Clinton. He got about 35 percent of the Democratic vote in these counties.

Many of these same counties in Skelton’s district voted for Bill Clinton in the 1996 election, so they are not out of reach for a Democratic presidential candidate.

Obama’s victory in Missouri was due to the tried-and-true formula for Democratic candidates in the state: big turnout and massive margins in Saint Louis and Kansas City and their suburbs, plus Boone County, home of the University of Missouri-Columbia, and Cole County, home to state employees at the state capitol in Jefferson City.

Those cities and counties supplied 70 percent of all his votes in the state.

As another test of Obama’s potential cross-over appeal to independent and Republicans, consider three counties in Virginia, a state he won with 63 percent of the statewide vote.

Bedford County, near the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a good bellwether for rural, conservative places — which were Democratic 40 years ago — that have turned Republican.

Thirty years ago, a Southern Democrat, Jimmy Carter, carried Bedford County in the 1976 presidential election, but he was the last Democratic presidential candidate to do so.

In 2004, Bush won 70 percent of Bedford County.

In last week’s primary, Obama got 2,435 votes in Bedford County, or 45 percent of the Democratic primary votes. Huckabee was the winner in this county with 4,770 votes, two-thirds of the GOP primary votes.

Obama's success in suburbia
But in fast-growing exurban Fauquier County in northern Virginia which Bush carried easily in 2004, Obama did quite well, winning 60 percent of the Democratic votes. Turnout by Democrats was also much higher in Fauquier by Republicans.

One sign of Obama’s potential strength here in the fall election: he got 1,200 votes more than McCain.

Another high-growth exurban bellwether in northern Virginia is Loudon County.

Bush carried the county in the 2004 election with 56 percent, but 2006 Democratic Senate candidate Jim Webb won it with just over 50 percent the vote, a key to his statewide win.

In Loudon, Obama got 21,271 votes, or 62 percent in the Democratic primary, to Clinton’s 38 percent. Obama’s votes in Loudon were more than twice as many as McCain got in the county.

Finally, consider one of the most Republican places in New Hampshire, a state Democrats should win in November, given their dominance there in the 2006 elections.

The suburban town of Londonderry, N.H. is almost always a Republican bastion. Bush carried it easily in 2000 and did even better in the town in 2004, even as he was losing statewide in New Hampshire to John Kerry.

In the Jan. 8 primary Obama got 1,802 votes in Londonderry, lagging Clinton by 157 votes, but ahead of McCain’s 1,761.

So, what do the actual vote counts reveal?

Obama can do well among Democrats and independent voters in predominantly Republican districts, counties, and towns.

In some cases, mostly in suburbia, he performs better than Clinton, but in other cases, in rural counties, not nearly as well as Clinton.

Does this predict the outcome in November? Maybe, maybe not.

The Nov. 4 electorate will be far bigger, and will, to some extent, include different voters.

For example, the total primary vote for both parties in Virginia last Tuesday, nearly 1.5 million people, was less than half number of voters who cast ballots in the 2004 presidential election in that state

Winning more votes than all the Republicans
Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said his candidate's strong showing in the Democratic contests in Idaho and other traditionally Republican states offers evidence that he’d be competitive there in November.

“In some of these red states, we’ve won more votes on our own than all of the Republican candidates combined,” Burton said citing the results in Idaho, Colorado, Missouri, Virginia, South Carolina, Kansas, and Georgia as proof.

In one sense it doesn’t really matter whether Obama is or isn’t drawing significant support from Republican and independent voters.

If Obama could motivate enough Democrats to vote in states which have gone Republican in the past two presidential elections, then he’d win. Driving up the hard-core Democratic numbers in cities and suburbs is a proven way to win states such as Virginia and Missouri.

But Obama’s rhetoric is built on the premise that if elected president he would be able to transcend the deep differences in ideology between him and Republicans and get them to support the Democrats’ agenda.

That’s why exit poll data on his appeal to independents will play such a dominant role in the narrative you’re likely to hear Tuesday and in the weeks to come.

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