The politics of race are simpler than we pretend: Some people are racist, and candidates need their votes to win. Which is why Senate candidates Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky made one smart strategic decision early in their careers: being born white.
This conversation, which many Americans avoid when possible, was raised this week by New York's Jonathan Chait. Chait pointed out a bit of a hiccup in how the media was reporting the appearance of former president Bill Clinton on the campaign trail on behalf of Lundergan Grimes. Clinton is more popular than President Obama in Kentucky (and in many other places) thanks in part to having been out of office for a while, making him a more effective advocate for Democratic candidates than Obama.
But as Chait noted, Obama was unpopular in Kentucky even before he took office. Chait has a version of a New York Times comparison of the vote in 2004 for John Kerry and the 2008 vote for Obama in his post. It looks something like this.
The darker the state in the map above, the more strongly it preferred Kerry to Obama between the two elections. Arizona and Massachusetts are darker than other states because Kerry got a boost in his home state and because Sen. John McCain's home state voted more heavily against Obama than Kerry. Arkansas is very dark in part because of the hotly contested primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton. But it also lies along that line of states from West Virginia, through Kentucky, out to Oklahoma that opposed Obama more fervently than they did Kerry. For some reason.
There's plenty of anecdotal explanation for the difference. In 2008, the Daily Show ran a famous segment following the Democratic primary in West Virginia, at the northeastern corner of that line of states and which Hillary Clinton won by a steep margin over Obama. One state resident put her concern bluntly: Obama was of "the other race," and that scared her.