Note: I'm the author of a new book, Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest, but I'm not part of the Obama campaign.
According to the exit polls, West Virginia's voters revealed that they are the most racist in the country so far in the Democratic primaries. Fully 21% of the voter consisted of whites who reported that race was a factor, and they voted for Clinton 84-9 over Obama. That's a total racist vote of 19%, exceeding the racist vote in all of the previous primaries with exit polls, and going far above the 13.7% in Arkansas, the most racist state before now in this election.
The exit poll asked whether Obama shares the views of Jeremiah Wright. Half of the West Virginia voters polled said that he did (20% a lot, 30% somewhat). Of those who thought Obama shares the views of Wright "a lot", they voted 88-3 for Clinton. That's an astonishing number, and it overlaps greatly with the voters admitting racism. It reflects one vision of racists, that all black people think alike. But the influence of the Rev. Wright case suggests that "iceberg racism" (the racism beneath the surface) is also strongly affecting voting.
What may be most remarkable about these figures is that they show how little history matters in racism. Remember, West Virginia was created as a state during the Civil War when it broke away from Virginia and rejected the Confederacy to remain part of the Union. However, it's not clear if this separation really indicated the people's views, but West Virginia was admitted to the Union in 1862 with the requirement that it gradually eliminate slavery.
So why is West Virginia more racist than the former Confederate states? One reason might be lack of contact with blacks. The exit polls indicated that voters were 95% white, and only 3% black. Whites may hold on to bigotry when they rarely encounter blacks and do not have their stereotypes challenged. However, Obama has done very well in other all-white states, including Iowa and Vermont.
Perhaps it reflects economics. West Virginia (like the second most racist state, Arkansas) tends to be a poor white-dominated state. In the face of poverty, many people don't cling to guns or religion. They cling to racism.
The Republican Party's rise to power in recent decades has largely depended upon the fact that impoverished whites blame blacks rather than corporations for their problems. Without these racist whites, Republicans such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush could never have won. The biggest hope for the future of the Democratic Party is the dying off of the old racists who helped bring the Republicans to power. But West Virginia skews very old, and poorly educated, which is the worst possible demographic for Obama.
By contrast with race, gender was a key factor helping Hillary Clinton. Overall 18% of the voters said gender was a factor, and they supported Clinton 73-22. Incredibly, among the men who said gender was a factor in their voting, they also supported Clinton 59-34. This indicates that bigotry can be a divided concept. White people, and even white men, can support a female candidate enthusiastically while simultaneously revealing their dislike of black people.
But it's also possible that Hillary Clinton's success at overcoming the sexism that I believe is out there can be attributed to "sponsorship." Hillary Clinton can get the vote of men, and even sexist men, because she has a well-liked white man, Bill Clinton, vouching for her and giving her strong support. If so, the question becomes whether the support of Obama by prominent white men (including Bill Clinton) might help offset the bigotry that's so apparent.
As for the Limbaugh Effect, only 4% of the voters in West Virginia called themselves Republicans, too small for reporting details of their voting. From my calculations, though, Clinton won only about 60% of the Republican vote, better than she did among Independents but less than her margin among Democrats. So the Limbaugh Effect was less than 1% in West Virginia. However, Limbaugh did not aggressively push for Republican voting in West Virginia, which has a closed primary.
As the West Virginia primary shows us, in many parts of the country racism is alive and well and controlling our political process. Many commentators assume that Obama's success with the young and well-educated is due to some "elitist" support he has among the latte-sipping crowd. The real reason is racism. Younger people are less likely to embrace racist views. Well-educated people are less likely to embrace racist views. And that makes all the difference in America, where the continuing significance of race can be measured with alarming detail in West Virginia's primary.