Obama Oddly Unpopular in Former Slave States

The post title is borrowed from Josh Marshall.

Roll Call has a good article (sub.req.) today about the role of former President Bill Clinton in the 2010 election. The gist of the piece is that Clinton is turning out to be an important asset in this cycle since there are many parts of the country where he can go and campaign effectively where Barack Obama just can’t. I talked to one candidate running in a race below the Mason-Dixon line a while back. And this person told me that where he’s running, outside of the few places, Barack Obama is just toxic. Not surprising. But it was bracing to hear it from the candidate’s own mouth.

What strikes me about the Roll Call article is that there’s not a single mention in the piece that Barack Obama is … well, black.

I don’t want to make it like Obama’s unpopularity in a lot of parts of the South is solely or even mainly tied to his race. I don’t believe that. Not just because I don’t want to paint with too broad or over-stating a brush. But there is actually some very relevant evidence to the contrary. If you go back to 1994 and 1995 you’ll remember how Bill Clinton had a very similar geographical spread to his dire unpopularity. In a sense, he became kind of black in the middle years of his presidency, notwithstanding the fact that his political appeal in 1991-92 was precisely that he was a white Southerner with all the right cultural inflections.

This is rather self-refuting, no?

Look, there’s no doubt that race plays a significant role in American politics and especially in the Deep South.  I’m a conservative white Southerner and don’t deny that.

Bill Clinton, like Jimmy Carter before him, did much better than the Democratic norm in attracting Southern votes because they were, well, Southern.  But each of them became despised in the South during their tenure of office because they promulgated left-of-center policies unpopular there.   Indeed, the animus was likely magnified because they talked with Southern accents, making their politics  a betrayal in the minds of those who supported them.

But Bill Clinton has been out of office a long time now.  He’s largely stayed out of the political fray, turning himself into an elder statesman with his humanitarian work.  His enormous charm and empathy have thus overshadowed the pique over his long-ago politics.  (Recall, though, that he’s been briefly unpopular and controversial when he gets too far into the political weeds, as during his wife’s losing presidential campaign.)

Barack Obama naturally started with low support among white Southerners because he’s a liberal Democrat from outside Dixie.  And his policies have been wildly unpopular among conservatives and even moderates who crossed over to vote for him.    So it’s hardly surprising that he’s not popular in the South.

Is he suffering an additional penalty among white Southerners because he’s black?   Almost certainly.  But that’s likely offset by the increased support among black Southerners, who constitute a quarter to a third of the population in most former Confederate states.

FILED UNDER: Race and Politics, US Politics, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. JKB says:

    Back in the late 1980s, the government decided to mandate the use of Turtle Excluder Devices (TED) in shrimp nets. So in infinite Washington wisdom they issued a rule and simply said you will do this because we are smart and you are not to the Southern fishermen. For a few years driving a NOAA truck or boat was a good way to learn calm under fire. In the end, it wasn’t the TED that was the problem it was the high handed mandate from brainiacs up north.

    So there is little surprise that Mr. Washington Mandate would be unpopular in the South. That doesn’t these issues couldn’t be sold to Southerners. But try to cram something down their throat and most Southerners will make you choke on it.

    Of course, the spill isn’t helping with the persistent revelations actual government incompetence in refusing foreign offers, dithering on berm approvals, waiver of Jones Act impediments and ignoring offers to provide booms.