I propounded a theory a couple of weeks ago that the candidate who wins the votes of East Arkansas farmers wins the state.
Al Gore lost Arkansas because farmers didn't trust his environmental advocacy. Mark Pryor, Blanche Lincoln, Mike Beebe, Mike Ross, Marion Berry — all hold office because they are sensitive and connected to farmers, and, by extension, conservative white rural voters generally.
Mike Huckabee got it. The Hutchinsons, Asa and Tim, didn't.
So how does this theory apply to the unfolding presidential race?
The easiest answer is this: If Hillary Clinton could somehow still get the nomination, which she almost certainly can't, she would carry East Arkansas farmers and white rural votes, thus the state. That's because she's a known quantity married to a man farmers would love to see back in the White House after eight years of George W. Bush.
But it seems almost assured that the choices will be John McCain and Barack Obama, neither, from the standpoint of farmers and many white rural voters, good.
McCain is burdened among these constituencies by close association with Bush. More specifically, he has railed against subsidies for farmers and he was in lock step with Bush's recently overridden veto of a major farm bill that, while capping subsidies, left those subsidies sufficiently intact to mollify Arkansas farmers.
McCain's war record and maverick independence overcome quite a bit with these voters. But it is always problematic for a politician if he is perceived as a threat to livelihoods.
It takes an unusually altruistic voter to support a political candidate who wants to cut that voter's income. A man running for office while saying newspaper columnists ought to get paid less is going to be a hard sell with me, all other issues and factors notwithstanding.
That leaves Obama, who supported the farm bill and the override, but who is an African-American.
I am not saying all East Arkansas farmers are racists. I am not saying all conservative white rural voters in Arkansas are racists. I'm saying remnants of a racist culture stubbornly persist in some parts of rural Arkansas.
East Arkansas remains this kind of place: You can be driving through it, headed to Oxford, Miss. You can ask a ball-capped old boy pumping gas which turn to take after you go across the bridge into Mississippi. He can say he doesn't know, but that “the boy” inside knows, and to ask him. The only person inside is an old black man, who, indeed, knows the way and gladly tells you.
These are throwbacks from the present, much less the future Obama represents.
This election nationally will turn on whether we cast our votes based on the national mood for change or a national mood of fear. Change means a vote for Obama. Fear (of Obama, mainly, and terrorism secondarily) means a vote for McCain.
In East Arkansas and other rural sections, thus the state, it will be something a little different. We're peculiar down here. It will be economic aversion versus cultural aversion. Do you vote your pocketbook or do you vote the prejudices of your heritage?