Barack Obama's big Oregon lead

A look at the polls suggests the Illinois senator's victory dance is warranted.
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A look at the polls suggests the Illinois senator's victory dance is warranted.

Oregon is shaping up as a big-win state for Sen. Barack Obama, with polling results released today showing him with the greatest best advantage of any previous surveys done this year in the state.

A statewide poll by Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall Inc., a widely respected Portland polling and research firm, showed Obama with a 20-point lead over Hillary Clinton. Based on 400 interviews with likely Democratic voters, Obama scored 55 percent to Clinton's 35 percent. The poll was published online by the Portland Tribune, which recently announced it will cut its print edition from twice weekly to once. The poll's margin of error is 4.8 percent.

"Barring a disaster, Barack Obama's going to win Oregon, and he may win it very big," Hibbitts told the Tribune. "This is the widest lead that I've seen of any poll for Obama in Oregon," he said. "I'd be shocked if Obama didn't win here."

At least 13 percent of Oregon Democrats have already returned mail ballots, according to election officials. The deadline is May 20, a week from today.

Obama holds predictable leads in the Democratic strongholds of Portland and Eugene, but Hibbitts found margins for him across the state, even in the rural and small-town regions where former President Bill Clinton has been stumping for several days.

Oregon potentially has the opportunity to put Obama over the top in delegates, if a win there helps turn loose uncommitted super-delegates. It may also be his last chance in the fading days of the primary to show he can win constituencies Clinton has held in previous races, including today's West Virginia voting.

What was interesting, Hibbitts told Crosscut in an e-mail, "is that Obama led among women by 11 percent (men by 30 percent) and was competitive with her among those over 55 (losing by 48 percent to 43 percent)."

Obama's campaign expects the candidate to make a swing through Oregon this weekend, but schedules have not been announced.

It is hard to imagine Clinton reversing the Obama lead. Five other polls taken since March 4 by national polling organizations show him with 50 percent to 54 percent of the vote. Clinton had led the Illinois senator until early February, when he sharply reversed her advantage.

Oregon voters have been on the sidelines in recent presidential elections, but the state's direct-primary election was the nation's first, adopted by initiative in 1910. For many years, before party reforms after 1968 brought more states into the primary system, Oregon's May primary was considered one of the important tests of candidates.

In 1968, Eugene McCarthy defeated Robert F. Kennedy, 46.7 percent to 40.4 percent, the first time in 26 elections that a Kennedy was defeated in an election. The race split Oregon's Democratic party, and both candidates mounted intensive campaigns in the state. Kennedy partisans blamed the state's lack of minority and ethnic voters for the loss, which was followed by Kennedy's last victory, in the California primary where he was gunned down as the election returns were announced.

Peter Wong, political reporter for the Statesman-Journal in Salem, noted in a reprise of the 1968 campaign similarities to 2008:

America was mired in an overseas war that had grown increasingly unpopular and brought down a president. Democrats faced a choice in the primaries for their presidential nomination. A New York senator from a prominent political family, which already produced a president, faced a Midwest senator whose insurgent candidacy was supported by mainly young people opposed to the war. Meanwhile, Republicans turned to an experienced candidate who had run for president eight years earlier.

Oregon voters can be fickle if they feel neglected. Jimmy Carter lost the state in 1976 to a late campaign by California Gov. Jerry Brown and Idaho Sen. Frank Church, after Carter seemed to have the nomination in hand. Church polled 145,394 votes to Carter's 115,310. Brown, who ran as a write-in, finished with 106,812 and won the Democratic strongholds in Portland and Eugene. It was the first time since Oregon's direct primary began that the ultimate winner in November had not won Oregon's primary.

As Kennedy noted in 1968, Oregon lacks large minority populations, and the state's African-American community, centered in Portland, has not been particularly influential politically. But Obama benefits from an enthusiastic liberal following in Portland and the university community of Eugene. In 2004, Howard Dean built a substantial following with his "meet-up" organizations centered on Portland and focused on young voters. Many morphed naturally into the Obama organization, which opened offices across the state. It probably doesn't hurt Obama that his brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, has been named the new basketball coach at Oregon State University.

Oregon has turned increasingly Democratic in the past two decades, but the state's voters have always exercised an independent streak, making Arizona Sen. John McCain a stronger candidate in Oregon than would have been the case with other Republican hopefuls. But the state's Republican base is more conservative than it had been when liberal Republicans were in control in the 1960s and 1970s.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.