Watching returns from Tuesday's West Virginia Democratic Presidential primary, we began waxing nostalgic for a gentleman named Monroe Schwarzlose, and the lesson he taught an incumbent politician way back in 1980.
The politician was Bill Clinton, and he was running for re-election as Governor of Arkansas. After just two years in office, Clinton was facing rising discontent at home (we mean Arkansas, not from a certain lamp-throwing spouse). But Mr. Clinton thought a second term was his for the asking. After all, he was the Boy Wonder governor, with an Ivy League education and a Rhodes scholarship behind him (even if he never completed his studies at Oxford). Mr. Schwarzlose, by comparison, was a turkey farmer from rural Kingsland, Arkansas and something of a perpetual candidate. As a Republican, he ran for a state house seat in 1974 and lost. Four years later, he entered the Democratic primary for governor and pulled barely one percent of the vote against Bill Clinton and other candidates.
Undeterred, Mr. Schwarzlose tried again in 1980. His campaign was self-financed; by one account, the turkey farmer spent $4,000 in a bid to deny Clinton the Democratic nomination. Most of the cash financed his travels around the state where Schwarzlose, typically clad in a pair of bib overalls, regaled audiences with stories about farming and rural life around Kingsland. Instead of campaign literature, he passed out copies of his favorite home canning recipes. Quite a contrast from the Clinton political machine.
But on primary day, Schwarzlose achieved what many believed impossible. With no TV ads and just a handful of appearances around the state, he garnered 30% of the vote against Bill Clinton. Experts dismissed it as something of a fluke, not realizing that Mr. Schwarzlose was tapping into growing discontent against Clinton and his policies. During the November general election, Clinton got another surprise, losing to GOP challenger Frank White. Clinton returned to the governor's mansion two years later, having learned a hard lesson about losing touch with the electorate.
Flash forward 32 years and the performance of another unlike candidate may be a harbinger for Barack Obama. As you might have heard, the President of the United States lost 41% of the vote in the West Virginia primary to one Keith Judd. Mr. Judd isn't even a resident of the West Virginia; he's currently incarcerated at a federal prison in Texas, serving a 17-year sentence for extortion. But with an outlay of $2500 (the campaign filing fee), no advertising and no appearances on the stump (apparently, the feds frown on inmates hitting the campaign trail), Judd pulled over 40% of the vote against a sitting president.
True, Mr. Obama may be the most unpopular Democratic politician in a heavily Democratic state, thanks to his war on the coal industry. But there were plenty of Democrats in West Virginia who voted against Obama and have no direct ties to the coal business. Put another way, they're fed up with the President and his policies and willingly pulled the lever for a convicted felon, whose only "campaign photo" was his prison mug shot.
It's easy to dismiss Judd's performance as little more than a protest vote, just as the pundits did in Arkansas back in 1980. But sometimes, even quixotic candidates can provide a serve as something of a political barometer. Mr. Obama is hardly destined for defeat in November, but he's not exactly a shoo-in, either. Maybe that's why Democratic strategist James Carville published an op-ed at CNN.com, warning his party (and President Obama) could lose this fall, if they remain complacent. We can only hope.
ADDENDUM: And if Mr. Obama doubts the anger in the American electorate, he might consult with his "favorite" Republican, Richard Luger, the soon-to-be former Senator from Indiana.