Smyrna: No votes, little love for Obama

SMYRNA -- This tiny outpost on York County's western edge, population 59, has claimed for years to be the smallest incorporated town in South Carolina. Its limits extend a half-mile around an old railroad depot, a ball field, a volunteer fire department and not much else.

After the local polling station closed last month, Smyrna found itself with another distinction: The place where nobody voted for Barack Obama.

Of the 47 people who cast ballots here in the Democratic presidential primary, 30 chose Hillary Clinton. Seventeen went for John Edwards. Obama earned precisely zero votes, making Smyrna the only precinct in South Carolina in which more than 40 people voted where Obama was not picked on a single ballot.

Even if some people in Smyrna aren't eager to talk about it, their votes offer an important glimpse into a challenge Obama faces on Tuesday, when four other Southern states hold primaries as part of Super Tuesday.

For all his popularity among black voters and young people, Obama has made few inroads in rural, mostly white pockets of the South where folks prefer their Democrats in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter.

By any estimation, Smyrna is an extreme case. But it might tell a larger story.

Old-town ways

"Tell you the truth, I don't like his name," said Peggy Spencer, who has lived in Smyrna close to 55 years. "I guess his name don't hit me as being American. That's what I think about when I think of him."

Buddy Mitchell chose Edwards, finding him to be the candidate who "seemed like he was for the poor man." When he heard about Saturday's results, Mitchell said he was "kindly proud of it" that no one in town cast a ballot for Obama.

He didn't want to talk about why he feels that way.

"You say the wrong thing now, and people will get on you," he said. "You can't say anything about anybody no more; they'll take it wrong."

In reaching his decision, Mitchell, 71, said he didn't give much thought to who would have the best chance to win in November. He didn't look much at each candidate's platforms. Instead, he followed a gut feeling on the candidate who best related to him.

That's a sentiment held by many voters on the western side of the county, said Steve Love, president of the western York County branch of the NAACP. People look for someone who understands both their small town roots and distaste for big city life.

"They're pretty much staying with what they've known all along," Love said. "They don't relish change like, say, a bigger city. It's just old-town ways. They're pretty much locked in on that."

Love added another point: "People do vote along racial lines here."

They did in the Jan. 26 primary. It's important to note that the Smyrna precinct encompasses a much larger area than the actual town. Of the 501 registered voters assigned to it, 490 are white. Eleven are nonwhite, according to the state election commission.

A week earlier, the Republican primary attracted 76 voters.

No one enjoyed as much success statewide as Obama, who won South Carolina by a 2-to-1 margin. But across the state, he fared most poorly in predominately white precincts like this one. Only a quarter of whites chose him, according to exit polls. Clinton and Edwards each got about a third of the white vote.

A similar trend played out last week in the Florida primary, where 73 percent of blacks and just 23 percent of whites said they were backing Obama.

In Smyrna, some believe the outcome was about politics and not just color.

"You need to understand, this is working-class people over here," said Kenneth Ruffin Sr., a self-described independent who voted for Republican John McCain but also supports U.S. Rep. John Spratt, a York Democrat.

Ruffin added: "We consider him (Obama) and Clinton as liberals. We figure if Clinton or Obama gets in there, our money's going to Washington."

Where will Edwards' people go?

Now that Edwards has pulled out, his supporters are left with a choice between Clinton or Obama. Neither is a natural fit for small- town Southerners, said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a political strategist who worked as Edwards' rural adviser.

"Nobody's been right in predicting this stuff yet," said Saunders, not wanting to make a guess which way those voters will break. But Saunders did raise an observation that he believes few people think about: The rural South shares similar struggles with aging Northern areas.

Smyrna used to have a railroad, but it closed. It used to have a grocery store called Whitesides and Co. General Merchandise, but it closed. Many people worked in textile plants, but they closed, too.

"One of these days, urban America and rural America are going to realize the commonality of their problems," Saunders said. "If you look at the inner city, it is the lack of opportunity. Their schools aren't up to scale. They have problems sending their kids to college. The ones that leave never come back."

In a sense, Obama's efforts to spotlight overlooked urban areas evokes shades of Edwards' focus on rural poverty, said Bobby Donaldson, a USC professor who specializes in race relations and the South. Each tends to come across more credibly with audiences accustomed to their styles.

"Among a lot of these rural communities, they've never seem someone like that before," Donaldson said of Obama. "He's an odd guy. He's not from these parts. I don't think Edwards' and Obama's messages are dramatically different. But John Edwards sounds like people who live down the street."

Dean Mitchell is one of those people. Like his brother, Buddy, Mitchell voted for Edwards after listening to him talk about the needs of the poor and middle class. A few days later, Edwards' departure set him adrift.

"I'm undecided now," Mitchell said. "There's two left, but I don't know about those two. Might make you want to be a Republican instead of a Democrat."