Voting Question: Pocketbooks vs. Racial Issues

AP, October 27, 2008

The campaign signs Gerald Skaggs has strung to his fence and flagpole—”Had Enough? Vote Democrat”—prompt passers-by on U.S. 60 to stop and talk. Sometimes, a bit too much.

After listening to Skaggs argue the merits of Barack Obama’s plans for the country, a recent visitor came to a grudging conclusion: “I guess I’ll have to vote for that———.”

Racial slurs have hardly disappeared here. But many voters in this 95 percent white, decidedly working-class state—and presumably, elsewhere in America—are fed up with a lousy economy and current leaders, and Democrats hope they will re-embrace their blue-collar and party roots, swallow any misgivings about race and support a black man for president.

The highway visitor’s offhand comment speaks volumes about how bad things have gotten since West Virginia helped elect Republican President Bush in 2000 and 2004.

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National polls showed Democrat Obama and Republican John McCain in a close race until the crisis began in September; then Obama opened up a lead in most surveys. Still, polling shows McCain continuing to lead in West Virginia.

Race remains an issue as the contest plays out house by house.

An AP-Yahoo survey in September showed that one-third of white Democrats in the U.S. agree with at least one negative adjective when applied to blacks, and they’re less likely to vote for Obama than those who don’t feel that way.

But AP polling shows Obama is slowly pulling in former supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who trounced him in West Virginia’s Democratic primary by more than 2-to-1.

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Obama has taken his slight surge seriously enough to sink advertising money into West Virginia, and he sent running mate Joe Biden to Charleston last Friday. But he has not set foot in the state since a pre-primary visit to Charleston in May.

Ansted, a coal-country town of about 1,500, is a place where blacks and whites mingle on the streets, chat together on the porch of the local convenience store and generally live in harmony—but their homes tend to be in separate parts of town.

Not everyone is ready to put race aside, says heating contractor Steve Legg, a 55-year-old independent who expects Obama to lose.

“I hate to say it,” he admits, “but most of it’s just prejudice.”

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To West Virginians, the decision isn’t just about race and the economy. There are concerns about religion, patriotism and veterans’ care, gun control, taxes and support for organized labor.

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“I am a Republican and I would vote for McCain,” DeLeon [Roberto DeLeon, a Masontown barber] says. “However, I’m also a veteran . . . and from what I understand, Obama has supported the veterans a lot more than McCain has. But Obama is against gun ownership. The NRA does not endorse Obama. And I’m a hunter. I have guns. So I’m kind of split there.”

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