Do Obama's primary embarrassments matter?

President Obama speaks in Washington May 8, 2012.
AP Photo
President Obama speaks in Washington May 8, 2012.
President Obama speaks in Washington May 8, 2012.
AP Photo

(CBS News) For the second time in three weeks, President Obama on Tuesday faced an obscure Democratic primary challenger -- and lost a big chunk of votes to him.

Mr. Obama, who has already clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, scored his expected primary wins in Arkansas and Kentucky last night. But in Arkansas, the president lost 42 percent of the vote to a Tennessee attorney named John Wolfe. In Kentucky, where Mr. Obama faced no challenger, he lost 42 percent to "uncommitted."

Tuesday's contests mark the third time in less than a month that the president has seen his primary victories diminished by a virtually unknown -- or nonexistent -- competitor. In West Virginia's May 9 primary, four in 10 Democrats voted for a convicted felon currently serving time in prison over Mr. Obama.

"This means two of every five Democrats in West Virginia, Arkansas and Kentucky have voted 'uncommitted' -- or [for another candidate] -- rather than for President Obama," said Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "There's no way to present it as anything but an embarrassment."

The Obama campaign pointed out that the president received more primary votes than his presumptive Republican rival Mitt Romney in Kentucky. Mr. Obama earned 119,277 votes in the state to Romney's 177,599 votes, according to CBS News and the Associated Press. Romney, however, earned 67 percent of Republican votes, while Mr. Obama earned 58 percent.

"In a solid Republican state, the total Democratic turnout was higher than Republican turnout," an Obama campaign official told CBS News with regard to the Kentucky primary. "This must concern Republicans, since voters continue to let out one big collective yawn when it comes to Mitt Romney's candidacy."

In Arkansas, Romney won more votes and a higher percentage of his party's support than Mr. Obama. Romney won 103,164 votes and 68 percent of the vote, according to CBS News estimates, while AP projections showed Mr. Obama with 94,852 votes and 58 percent support. Wolfe earned 67,491 votes, or 42 percent support.

Candace Martin, communications director of the Arkansas Democratic Party, attributed Wolfe's success to the fact that he had been actively campaigning in the state for weeks. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, did not actively campaign for the primary, although Martin said that his campaign had opened a state office and "they have been working toward goals that will benefit the president in the fall."

She also noted that because Arkansas has an open primary system, anyone -- with any motive -- could vote in either primary. But she acknowledged that there had been no reports that Republicans voted in significant numbers for Wolfe on Tuesday.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) was quick to mock Mr. Obama's performance, selling buttons Wednesday bearing a likeness to Obama campaign's logo that say: "Fired up! Ready to go! Uncommitted!"

"President Obama had a run for his money last night against 'uncommitted' in the Kentucky primary," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. "After three and a half years of failed policies and broken promises, it's no wonder nearly 40 percent of Democrats looked at the ballot and voted against Barack Obama. After a tough primary in West Virginia recently against a convict, the president's reelection support among his own party is looking dire."

Despite the ostensible embarrassment attached to Mr. Obama's lackluster victories in Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia, Sabato said that the president's performance is merely reflective of the fact that "in blue states Romney is disliked intensely and in red states Obama is disliked intensely."

"The race is over in 35 to 40 states. The nation is polarized," he said. "This is just more evidence of that. That's what it really means."

Mr. Obama's poor performance among Democrats in these three states nothing new. In 2008, Hillary Clinton beat him in the primaries in all three states, and Republican nominee John McCain took all three in the general election. In Kentucky, 30 percent of the state's Democrats crossed over to McCain, much higher than the national rate of 10 percent. In West Virginia, 28 percent of Democrats crossed over to McCain, as did 21 percent in Arkansas.

"They're deeply red states. President Obama was blown out of the water in 2008 and obviously hasn't gained a bit of popularity since," said Sabato. "I think [Democrats] can safely write those states off."