February 14, 2008

Unique Dynamic Gives Obama Upper Hand in Tompkins

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Ithaca’s “ten square miles surrounded by reality” seemed to encompass the whole of Tompkins County last Tuesday when Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) soundly defeated Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the county’s Democratic primary. But the question remains: how?
Despite losses in every other county throughout the state, Obama finished with a nearly 17-point lead over home-stater Clinton last week in Tompkins. Across the rest of New York, Clinton received 57 percent of the Democratic vote, while Obama was awarded only 40 percent.
Yet for many reasons, Democratic voters in Tompkins often fit neatly into the Obama constituency because of their values and his message. According to Irene Stein, chair of the Democratic Committee of Tompkins County, two big factors swayed the primary in favor of Obama — voter demographics and war opposition.
Tompkins County is in accordance with trends across the nation where places with many young and highly educated voters choose Obama. So, Obama’s win should not come as a surprise, Stein said, because of the area’s predominantly educated community and Ithaca’s large youth vote.
The county’s demographics are likely the source of Tompkins’ “weird” voting record for this and many other elections, said Prof. Susan Christopherson, city and regional planning, who is familiar with issues in Upstate New York.
“I think this is a good example of how if you concentrate certain constituencies in a particular county, then you get certain results,” she said.
As for Iraq, Stein pointed out that anti-war sentiment in Tompkins has been very vocal, especially in Ithaca. Because of Clinton’s support for the Iraq war in 2002, Stein thinks many of these voters turned to Obama since he opposed the invasion. This dissatisfaction with Clinton was also evident in the 2006 Democratic primaries for U.S. Senator, in which challenger Jonathan Tasini ran a very close race, winning in the City of Ithaca but narrowly losing Tompkins County. According to the Ithaca Journal, the Iraq issue was the number one concern for Democratic voters in Tompkins.
Brian Hunt, an upstate field coordinator for the Obama campaign, credits Obama’s win to the overwhelming efforts of campaign volunteers who helped call voters, visit homes, organize rallies and canvas around the community. He said this genuine show of support and enthusiasm inspired others to take a serious look at the candidate, pointing to poll results as evidence.
“The campaign here was clearly a grassroots effort. It was an effort of the people,” said Hunt.
Stein also noted Clinton’s comparatively lethargic campaign in the area that lacked the same vibrancy of Obama’s — a shortcoming that severely hurt votes and campaign contributions in Tompkins County.
A look at past voter preferences may reveal another side of the story.
“I think Tompkins County has a reputation — well deserved — for having pretty progressive politics,” Hunt said.
In the 1992 Democratic presidential primary, while the majority of N.Y. rallied around Bill Clinton, Tompkins County voted for Jerry Brown, the grassroots candidate promising to “take back America from the confederacy of corruption, careerism and campaign consulting in Washington.”
In 2000, Al Gore’s decisively liberal opponent, Bill Bradley, lost the county vote by only a slim margin. The 2004 primary may have been similarly favorable for the party’s new progressive candidate, Howard Dean, had he not pulled out of the election two weeks before the N.Y. primaries.
However, progressive politics is not really the issue here, according to Christopherson. With both candidates campaigning on a platform of change, both candidates running as the first woman or first African American for president, neither can be considered anything but progressive.
“In fact, both of these choices are revolutionary,” she said.
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