What's behind Clinton's thin win in Kentucky?

Posted at 12:56 AM, May 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-18 15:58:33-04

CINCINNATI — Hillary Clinton came to Kentucky hoping to vindicate her presidential campaign after an embarrassing drubbing a week ago in West Virginia at the hands of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

She leaves the state with a victory, but not one that delivers the impression of inevitability she had hoped to create. With more than 99 percent of the vote tallied, Clinton eked out a 0.4 percent win — a spread of just 1,814 votes out of more than 454,000 cast, according to the office of Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Turnout for Tuesday’s election across the state was as dismal as the chilly, gray, often rainy day. Grimes’ office said an estimated 17 percent of eligible voters turned out. That was below the already low forecast of 20 percent.

Clinton won thanks to the state’s urban centers, including Northern Kentucky. She won Louisville’s Jefferson County by a 17-percentage-point (and just more than 19,000-vote) margin. She swept Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties. She also won Fayette County, home to Lexington. The rest of the 38 counties she claimed lay toward the middle of the state.

Like in West Virginia, comments Clinton made about the coal industry haunted her in parts of the state where the coal industry is a major part of the economy. In March, the former U.S. senator and secretary of state said that, as president, she would put “a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

Not surprisingly, Sanders swept Clinton across eastern Kentucky — in some counties by a 2-1 margin. What was more surprising was his strength through the state’s far west, where Clinton won only tiny Fulton County.

The neck-and-neck battle for the bluegrass went to the wire, with news organizations refusing to declare a winner until the last round of vote tallies was made public. That drama played out in Northern Kentucky, too, where a thin Sanders lead in Campbell County flipped just before 8 p.m. to a less-than-1-percent Clinton lead. She went on to win the county.

In the end, said D. Stephen Voss, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky and a specialist in elections and voting behavior, what counts for Clinton is the bottom line — a win.

“This was the place to make a stand,” he said. “She made it.”

Winning the commonwealth is more about perception than substance, he said, because it is underrepresented on the national level. Kentucky’s share of voter-elected Democratic delegates to the Democratic National Convention is just 1.4 percent, he said, and its share of superdelegates is just 0.7 percent.

Voss said an interesting facet to Tuesday primary vote was the high number of votes for uncommitted delegates, especially in coal country. That was a message, he said, to punish Hillary Clinton without showing support for Sanders. Nearly 5 percent of the total vote went to “undecided.”

Message received, but Voss said that the pummeling she took in that region — echoing her performance in neighboring West Virginia — “doesn’t show any fundamental weakness in her coalition.”

Clinton, Voss said, “owes her gratitude to the black vote.” Her strength with minority voters is a legacy of Bill Clinton’s campaigns and provided the key margin of victory in Jefferson County and, by extension, the whole state.

Voss said Clinton was the favorite of Kentucky’s more educated voters, which was reflected in her victories in major urban centers, Scott County (home to Toyota’s Georgetown plant) and Hardin County, home to many Fort Knox personnel.

David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati, said several factors worked in Clinton’s favor Tuesday, including that Kentucky’s primary is closed, meaning independents who have flocked to support Sanders in other states could not in Kentucky, and that she enjoyed the strong support of the party’s establishment. That includes Grimes, the secretary of state beaten in a 2014 U.S. Senate bid by Mitch McConnell, and former Gov. Steve Beshear. Beshear introduced Clinton at a Fort Mitchell rally Sunday.

Niven called Tuesday’s win a “giant relief for the Clinton team” and an opportunity “to change the conversation a little bit.” While the difference in delegates between a close win and close loss is negligible, he said perception is powerful. (Clinton and Sanders will likely split the state’s 55 delegates. Before Tuesday, she was 118 delegates shy of securing the party’s presidential nomination.)

“In terms of headlines, cable news discussions and social media, it's the difference between the smiling emoji and weeping one,” he said.

While Clinton may not be happy with the size of her win, Niven said, “in the things that matter — winning more of the delegates, just like Obama did in 2008 — she's been running to win the nomination, not the state.”

Other races of interest

There were more contests Tuesday than the Democratic presidential race. Perhaps most notable was the easy win by Lexington-Fayette County Mayor Jim Gray in the Democratic primary for the chance to face Sen. Rand Paul in November. Gray won nearly 59 percent of the vote and more than 80 percent in Fayette County.

Paul won his primary today, too, taking nearly 85 percent of the Republican vote statewide. Kentucky’s Republicans changed their presidential nominating procedure at Paul’s behest, holding a separate caucus March 5 so that he could run for both president and senator. The scheme proved moot because Paul dropped out of the presidential race before March 5.

In the 1st Congressional District, James Comer staged a political comeback from his razor-thin gubernatorial loss last year. He won 61 percent of the Democratic vote in the district, which is mostly in far western Kentucky.

Follow Thomas Consolo on Twitter: @tconsolo_news.