Obama, West Virginia and the General Election

Hillary Clinton will win the West Virginia primary on Tuesday by an overwhelming margin, perhaps rivaling her campaign-best 43-point pasting of Barack Obama in Arkansas’ Feb. 5 primary.

The state is mostly populated by voters who have formed the backbone of her large and loyal coalition this primary season, and contains scant few of those who have made up Obama’s. Moreover, Obama, in a bow to the inevitable and an effort to downplay its significance, has not exactly gone all out this past week to narrow Clinton’s wide lead.

A Vegas oddsmaker, then, might set the line at Clinton by 30 points – and that could be conservative. But even if she wins by 50, it won’t alter the math that now has Obama on a collision course with the Democratic nomination – an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates and popular votes, along with a daily drumbeat of superdelegate endorsements that was only accelerated by his success last Tuesday. He won’t win in West Virginia, but in a way, he can’t really lose either.

But, in part because there are no other primaries on Tuesday, we’ll hear a lot about the final result. Clinton’s campaign will say that West Virginia is a swing state (one that no winning Democratic nominee has failed to carry since Woodrow Wilson in 1916!) and that it’s filled with the same kind of lower-income white voters who will swing other pivotal industrial states this fall.

In truth, though, the result in West Virginia won’t tell us much about Obama’s prospects in the general election.

West Virginia is one of numerous states that is either in the midst of a political transformation or on the brink of one. For most of the 20th century, it was among the most reliable Democratic states, loyal to the party even when Michael Dukakis was losing 40 states in 1988. But cultural issues pushed the state into the G.O.P.’s column in 2000, and by 2004, when George W. Bush won it by 13 points, it was only marginally contested by Democrats.

This doesn’t mean West Virginia is completely off-limits to the party. Bill Clinton carried it twice in the ’90s, by comfortable margins, and Hillary Clinton would stand a good chance of snagging it this fall. John Edwards might have fared well, too. Obama probably won’t.

But there’s a flip side to the cultural trends that make West Virginia so inhospitable to Obama, one that can be found across the state’s eastern border. For the second half of the 20th century, Virginia was about as faithful to the G.O.P. as West Virginia was to the Democrats. But Virginia is also changing, its population center shifting ever northward, toward the more affluent, educated and liberal Washington, D.C., area. It has yet to make the leap to the other side in a presidential election – Lyndon Johnson remains the last Democrat to carry it – but it only seems a matter of time.

In 2004, Democrats made some early noise about contesting Virginia, but it was just talk, and John Kerry lost it by eight points – still not a terrible showing, given the state’s political history. Since then, Democrats held onto the governorship in 2005 – when Tim Kaine was elected to succeed fellow Democrat Mark Warner, who left office with an approval rating near 80 percent – and picked off the Senate seat held by George Allen in 2006. And now Warner is the prohibitive favorite to replace retiring Republican John Warner in this year’s Senate race.

Obama trounced Clinton in Virginia’s Feb. 12 primary by a margin on par with Clinton’s expected spread in West Virginia. If she’s positioned to win five electoral votes in West Virginia that Obama can’t compete for, it should be noted that he could conceivably pick off 13 electoral votes in Virginia.

The West Virginia-Virginia contrast actually illustrates a key difference between Clinton and Obama. Clinton’s campaign has been very much geared toward the electoral map that shaped the 2000 and 2004 races. Her campaign has talked of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania and disparaged the strength Obama has shown in states that weren’t considered in play the last two elections. The Clinton fall game plan would have the Democrats write off the same states they wrote off in the last two elections (minus, perhaps, West Virginia and Arkansas) and focus on winning Ohio and Florida, securing the narrow one- or two-state victory that eluded Kerry and Al Gore. She has made a compelling case that she would have been the ideal nominee for the last election.

But Obama holds the promise of expanding the fall playing field, and of pursuing the openings that have emerged or that are emerging in a handful of states like Missouri. He runs much better than Clinton, for instance, in Colorado, a state that turned hard to the right in the mid-1990s, and could make it a game in North Carolina or even Louisiana, states that Democrats haven’t even thought about contesting in years.

The electoral map rarely remains frozen in place for two straight elections, the way it was in 2000 and 2004. Three consecutive campaigns with the same map would be virtually unprecedented. But history also shows that changes in the map aren’t often noticed or appreciated ahead of time. Ohio is a terrific example of this. Largely ceded to the G.O.P. for much of the 2000 campaign, Democrats looked up at the end of the race surprised to find themselves within striking distance in such a red state. Gore ended up falling three points short, but the close call caught the world’s attention, and the premier swing state of 2004 was born.

It’s easy to anticipate some of the changes in the ’08 map: Virginia and Colorado should be closer than they have been for years.

With Obama as the nominee, West Virginia will almost certainly be out of reach. And it may not matter at all.

Obama, West Virginia and the General Election