His token effort in West Virginia won't help Obama
But he should have competed there, if only to signal his awareness of its special place in Democratic history. Forty-eight years ago, it was West Virginia more than any other state that propelled John Kennedy into the White House. And it did so in a way that Obama should have wanted to emulate.
Admittedly, I have a bias. That 1960 primary race between Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey was my introduction to presidential politics. As a new reporter at The Washington Star, I did not get to Wisconsin for the first round of the Kennedy-Humphrey battle. But I didn’t miss much. Kennedy won the Catholic areas of the state, including Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha and the Fox River Valley. Humphrey dominated the Protestant farm counties from the middle of the state to the Minnesota border.
With Democratic leaders trying to gauge whether Kennedy would fall victim to the same prejudice that undercut Al Smith, the first Catholic nominee, back in 1928, Wisconsin gave no clear answer.
So the two young senators packed their bags and headed for West Virginia.
That state seemed made-to-order for Humphrey. Chronically poor, its citizens relied on New Deal programs to survive. A former Klan redoubt, many of its voters were suspicious of Catholics. The mineworkers and other unions were solidly in Humphrey’s corner. The state’s main powerbroker, Sen. Robert Byrd, was backing Humphrey in hopes of blocking Kennedy and opening the way for his friend Lyndon Johnson to jump into the race and capture the nomination at the Los Angeles convention.
Despite the odds, Kennedy did not hesitate. In reality, he had no choice but to tackle Humphrey in West Virginia; only by winning there could he convince the men who controlled state delegations from California to New York to give him a chance.
Kennedy had two resources he could deploy. He was rolling in money, thanks to his father’s wealth, and money talked in West Virginia. The custom was that whoever was most generous would find himself “slated” by the local Democratic organizations. When I got to Beckley, the coal-mining city where the Star sent me to examine the battle on the ground, I found that the sheriff, nominally supporting Humphrey, had decided—for unexplained reasons—that it was not in his interest to turn out a big vote against Kennedy.
And Kennedy had lots and lots of volunteers. In Beckley, his kid brother Ted Kennedy and Ben Smith, the family friend who would later serve as interim senator between John and Ted Kennedy, were manning a headquarters overflowing with young people recruited from the local parish.
All of the energy was on the underdog Kennedy’s side—and that is what the voters responded to. As I interviewed on downtown sidewalks and country lanes, it became clear that Kennedy could pull an upset—and he did.
I would have liked to see Obama attempt a similar feat. It would have been difficult, but he might have pulled it off. Clinton, like Humphrey, was about out of money, while Obama, like Kennedy, had plenty of cash. And Obama, like Kennedy, had more available young volunteers than he could possibly deploy.
But because he did not have to win this test, while Kennedy did, Obama played it safe and made only a token effort in West Virginia.
That was a rational, prudent decision. He has other and better opportunities to write a finish to this campaign. Next week, Kentucky might be difficult for Obama, but Oregon—a classic yuppie state with a fondness for smart, low-key politicians—should be easy pickings. The delegates he will win there could virtually clinch the nomination.
But, like Kennedy, Obama has questions he needs to answer.
He has sown doubts about his ability to win white, working-class votes. West Virginia could have helped put those doubts to rest. Now they will remain until the fall.
David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.