Beckley, West Virginia – You can’t say the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright is a cause for concern at Sen. Barack Obama’s town-hall meeting here at the Raleigh County Convention Center. For one thing, the people who have shown up, about 3,000 of them, are Obama fans, and they’re not inclined to worry about their man’s former pastor. For another, they’re West Virginians, and the phrase “U.S. of KKK A” might not strike them as too far-fetched, given that the senior politician from their state, Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, was once an actual Klansman. In any event, in his extended opening remarks, Obama says nothing about Rev. Wright, and when he opens the gathering up to questions, inviting audience members to ask anything they want, nobody else mentions the reverend, either.
Of course, there might be other reasons for this Wright-free gathering. Maybe the people here are more interested in what are usually called the “real issues” of this campaign. Or maybe a number of them, especially the younger voters who find Obama particularly appealing, are just not keeping up with the news.
“We need change, that’s what I believe in,” a young woman named Melissa tells me.
“What about all the stuff with his pastor?” I ask.
“You know — the news about the controversial things his pastor said.”
“I haven’t heard much about it,” Melissa says. “That’s not a good question for me.”
“I don’t know much about it,” says a young man named Nick. “I’ve just been hearing about it from people who aren’t supporters, so I don’t have any idea.”
Others seem to have stronger opinions. “I don’t think everybody who goes to one church has the exact same views as everyone else who goes to that church,” a young man named Paul tells me. “He doesn’t have any control over what his former pastor said.”
By the way, I ask, what was your reaction when you saw those video clips of Rev. Wright’s sermons?
“I didn’t see what he said,” Paul answers. “What did he say?”
It might seem farfetched to the media types who are consumed by Wright-gate, but perhaps Obama’s hope in West Virginia, which has its primary on May 13 and will award 39 Democratic delegates, lies in the possibility that a lot of voters simply haven’t heard of all the fuss about Rev. Wright. There are certainly some of them here today.
But even if the minister’s name never comes up again, it’s still an understatement to say that this is not Obama country. Although there’s been little polling in West Virginia, earlier this month the Rasmussen organization found Sen. Hillary Clinton way ahead of Obama, 55 percent to 27 percent, with 18 percent undecided. Rasmussen also found that likely Clinton voters just don’t seem to like Obama very much. Thirty-five percent of them say they are “not at all likely” to vote for Obama if he is the nominee, while 18 percent say they are “not very likely” to vote for him. Just 42 percent of Clinton supporters say they are “somewhat likely” to vote for Obama.
The demographics don’t look so good, either. Obama has won a lot of white votes in this campaign, but he has trouble with lower-income whites, and that’s by far the dominant group here. West Virginia, according to U.S. Census figures, is 94.9 percent white, and its median household income is $33,993 — well below the national median of $44,334. Raleigh County, where Beckley is located, is a bit more diverse, if you want to call it that — it’s just 90 percent white — and its median income is even lower, $31,793.
The fact that Obama is here at all points to the craziness of this Democratic campaign. West Virginia is near the end of the primary schedule, stacked against Obama in every way, yet with the Democrats’ proportional system, it might produce a few more delegates to keep Obama ahead of Clinton. If Obama can draw black voters here like he has in all the earlier states — and there’s no reason to think he can’t — he’ll win some of those delegates. Indeed, the schedule tells Obama’s story. He makes two stops in West Virginia this day: Charleston, which has the largest number of African-American voters in the state, and Beckley, which has the second-largest number of African-American voters in the state.
And here, at least, he doesn’t have to face questions about Rev. Wright. To be fair, many of the people at the Convention Center know about the Wright matter; they just don’t think it’s a problem. But Obama is also fortunate that there are some voters who haven’t looked into the issue at all, and won’t. To be troubled by something, first you have to know about it.