Obama, the South, and the Black Vote

Barack Obama links arms with Rev. Raphael Warnock, left, and associate pastor Shanan Jones as they sing "We Shall Overcome" during a church service at Ebenezer Baptist Church. (AP).Thomas Schaller,  the author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South, argues that the notion that Barack Obama has a good chance of winning Southern states because he’ll energize black turnout is based on fallacious reasoning.

The first myth is that African-American turnout in the South is low. Black voters are actually well represented in the Southern electorate: In the 11 states of the former Confederacy, African-Americans were 17.9 percent of the age-eligible population and 17.9 percent of actual voters in 2004, analysis of Census Bureau data shows.

And when socioeconomic status is held constant, black voters go to the polls at higher rates than white voters in the South. In other words, a 40-year-old African-American plumber making $60,000 a year is, on average, more likely to vote than a white man of similar background.

My guess is that this is largely a function of the enormous influence of black churches, which do an amazing job of getting their congregations motivated to vote and have an infrastructure in place to get them to the polls.

The second myth is that Democratic presidential candidates fare better in Southern states that have large numbers of African-Americans. In fact, the reverse is true, because the more blacks there are in a Southern state, the more likely the white voters are to vote Republican.

He cites the case of Mississippi, where Bush beat Kerry by 20 points in 2004, and shows that even a massive increase in black turnout would not do the trick unless he could simultaneously get a 50 percent increase of white voters over Kerry.  Ignoring the Bob Barr factor entirely, Schaller contends the same dynamics hold true in Georgia and North Carolina.

The one reasonable target, then, is the Old Dominion, where “a huge influx of upscale non-Southerners, who have taken over the Washington suburbs of northern Virginia” could make him viable.  This, despite the fact that the “black population in Virginia is, as a percentage, among the lowest in the region.”

Stacy McCain agrees wholeheartedly, except to point out that, “this trend applies generally nationwide. Even in Northern states, the larger the black population, the more heavily the white vote tends to shift toward Republicans.”

Jonathan Martin notes that Schaller isn’t telling us anything that V.O. Key didn’t know in 1949, when he told us “departures from the supposed uniformity of southern politics occur most notably in those states with fewest Negroes and in those sections that are predominantly white.”

Dan Riehl, meanwhile, thinks, “There is a very good chance that the media, liberals and Blacks will be expecting to wake up to the first Black POTUS one November morning, only to be shocked by the result. Think of it as the OJ verdict in reverse.”

Rather than taking the lesson that he might as well just give up on the non-Virginia South, though, Obama and his strategists would be served to double down on their efforts to avoid running as “the Great Black Hope.”  If he runs as “the black candidate” and has surrogates constantly charging “racism” every time he is challenged, he’s going to have a hard time making inroads in any state Kerry didn’t win in 2004.  Then again, all he needs is to peel off 18 Electoral Votes.  Virginia, with its 13, wouldn’t do it.  Ohio, with 20, would.  Or Virginia plus Iowa or New Mexico or Colorado.  Or simply Iowa plus New Mexico plus Colorado.

Schaller’s right, then, that Obama can win the presidency without competing in the South.  But campaigning in such a way as to give himself a chance — or make McCain spend money in — the South will likely help himself in those other states as well.

Thus far, he seems to be doing just that, including making a big play for Evangelicals.

Story via memeorandum. Photo credit: The Trail/AP.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Blogosphere, Race and Politics, The Presidency, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. anjin-san says:

    Pretty good James. You have an Obama “Black” header, and a Obama “Hitler” header. Work in “Muslim” and you have a hat trick.

  2. James Joyner says:

    You have an Obama “Black” header, and a Obama “Hitler” header. Work in “Muslim” and you have a hat trick.

    Heh. Of course, the posts go on to challenge the thesis of both characterizations.

  3. anjin-san says:

    Of course, the posts go on to challenge the thesis of both characterizations

    Yes, but its pretty easy to argue that this is an attempt to create a linkage between “Obama” and various buzzwords. “Don’t forget folks, that Obama is a negro. Pretty scary, no?” and so on…

    Is a post that argues Obama is no Hitler really necessary? The premise is obvious nonsense. Well, maybe not to Bithead.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Is a post that argues Obama is no Hitler really necessary? The premise is obvious nonsense.

    It was made by a prominent blog, discussed by a more prominent blogger, and highlighted on Memeorandum. So, it struck me as worth addressing.

  5. Br0c says:

    So what, is Bithead some sort of bad a$$ blogging bully?