Obama loses 42 percent of Kentucky, Arkansas primary vote. Should he worry?

No and yes. The key issue here may be whether the Kentucky and Arkansas primaries are a portent of trouble for President Obama in North Carolina, a crucial swing state.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama waves as he boards Air Force One before his departure from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Wednesday.

For President Obama, the good news out of last night’s Kentucky and Arkansas primaries was that he won in both states. The bad news was that he did not win as triumphantly as one might expect, given that he’s the incumbent US chief executive.

In Kentucky, 42 percent of Democratic voters checked off “uncommitted” on their ballot. In Arkansas, 42 percent opted for a little-known Tennessee attorney, John Wolfe.

Two weeks ago, a Texas prison inmate named Keith Judd won 41 percent of the vote in West Virginia’s primary. What’s going on here? Should the Obama campaign team be worried about lackluster results versus non-entity opponents?

Well, no and yes. No, in the sense that it’s no surprise Mr. Obama is unpopular in Southern states and Appalachia. He’s a lock for the Democratic nomination, so Democrats in this region feel free to express their opinion via protest votes.

Kentucky and Arkansas are going to be Romney states in November. Obama won’t campaign in either place (much). He’s already written them off. So last night’s results were a chronicle of an embarrassment foretold. The opinion of some left-leaning analysts was that the media should move along here, nothing to see.

“You will forgive me, I hope, a lack of excitement about the ‘story’ of the president’s weakness in these two states (and in other border states with large fossil-fuel energy industries and relatively few African-Americans), since I’ve been reading about it since the 2008 primaries,” writes Ed Kilgore Wednesday in the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog.

Part of the Southern resistance to Obama may be due to his race. White Democrats in this region, some D.C. Democrats say, just won’t vote for an African-American White House candidate. But unhappiness with Obama’s policies, including his stricter environmental standards, plays into it, notes Chris Cillizza in his Washington Post blog The Fix. So does discontent with the national Democratic Party.

“Overall, showings in Kentucky and Arkansas are certainly an embarrassment for Obama; the question is whether they portend a real enthusiasm problem in the fall,” writes Mr. Cillizza.

As Cillizza notes, the key issue here may really be whether Kentucky and Arkansas are a portent of trouble for Obama in North Carolina. North Carolina is a crucial swing state with relatively few swing voters: It’s balanced almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats. In that situation, the defection of a party faction could spell trouble for either side.

Beyond North Carolina, Tuesday night’s results could also indicate that the Obama team has to work harder on its white working-class problem. That part of the electorate will almost certainly break for Mitt Romney in November. White working-class voters have been disproportionately hurt by the economic downturn, and they're resistant to what they see as Obama’s liberal health-care reforms and support of gay marriage.

“Obama will never carry white working class. But he can’t afford to lose it by massive margins, either,” writes University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato Tuesday night on his Twitter feed.

In that sense, writes Mr. Sabato, Democrats who think Tuesday night’s results are a non-story are “whistling past a potential graveyard.”

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