If Barack Obama had hoped to move beyond the story of his 20-year association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Wall Street Journal says he will find himself disappointed. His standing in national polls has returned to the pre-Wright strength he enjoyed among Democrats, but upcoming primary states like Pennsylvania, Indiana, and West Virginia may give a hint as to whether Obama can keep suburban and rural white voters in the Democratic coalition in a general election. Nick Timiraos reports that the initial indications are mixed:
Sen. Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race relations last month seemed to put the controversial remarks of his former pastor behind him. But three weeks later, there is evidence of lingering damage.
“It has not been defused,” says David Parker, a North Carolina Democratic Party official and unpledged superdelegate. He says his worries about Republicans questioning Sen. Obama’s patriotism prompted him to raise the issue of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.’s remarks in conversations with both the Obama and Clinton campaigns. …
Recent polls suggest that, in key swing states, the New York senator fares better in head-to-head matchups with Republican nominee Sen. John McCain than does Sen. Obama. In Ohio, Sen. Clinton led Sen. McCain 48% to 39%, while Sen. Obama led Sen. McCain 43% to 42% in Quinnipiac University polls conducted in the last week of March.
In Pennsylvania, Sen. Clinton had a 48% to 40% lead against Sen. McCain while Sen. Obama was ahead 43% to 39%. The polls credit Sen. Clinton’s advantage to her strength among white voters. No Democrat has won the presidency with a majority of white voters since 1964, and no president from either party has been elected without winning two of the three swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida since 1960. In those three states, some 23% of white Democrats would defect to Sen. McCain in a matchup with Sen. Obama, compared with 11% who would abandon Sen. Clinton, according to the Quinnipiac polls.
The Wright Stuff continues to resonate for three reasons. First, it’s not a complicated issue to understand. Jeremiah Wright didn’t speak in subtle tones. He said that his congregation should pray for God to damn America, a place that most Americans love. Wright called the nation the US of KKK A, and openly accused the nation of creating HIV AIDS as an agent of genocide. Anyone supporting Wright, and the Obamas sent tens of thousands of dollars to Trinity United, has to answer for their support of this rhetoric.
Second, the sermons got videotaped and distributed by Wright himself and his church. Obviously, he felt sanguine enough about his message that he wanted it disseminated widely. That belies the notion that these were momentary and passion-induced transgressions that Wright later regretted. It indicates a pride in these statements that again calls into question the support Wright got for making them — and the “I didn’t inhale” rationalization coming from Wright’s most famous parishioner.
Most importantly, no one really knows Barack Obama. He hasn’t exactly revealed himself in legislative action, nor has he acted in any kind of executive role which would show his direction in governance. He wants Americans to accept him for his judgment, but provides precious little evidence of it in his meager political track record. His judgment in supporting Wright therefore gets a lot more attention and sticks closer to him as a result — and it should.
It’s unlikely that this will have much impact on the primary, even in the remaining Rust Belt states. It will have a far greater impact in a general election, where independents and centrists that Obama hoped to reach will wonder whether his flirtation with Weather Underground radicals William Ayers and Bernadette Dohrn didn’t follow as a piece from listening to the incendiary demagogogic hate speech at Trinity United, and worry whether Obama isn’t a radical with a better sense of public relations instead of the reasonable independent-minded outsider that he paints himself to be.