The South Will Fall Again
Thursday, 03 July 2008


THE interim between the primaries and the parties’ nominating conventions is, according to ancient writ, a fertile period for presidential campaigns to talk about how they plan to expand the political map in the fall.

This year is no different. Barack Obama’s strategists are suggesting that the first African-American presidential nominee of a major political party can parlay increased turnout among black voters into a string of victories in the South.

Given that roughly half of all African-Americans live in the 11 former Confederate states, the idea seems intuitive enough. It’s also wrong. Prying Southern electoral votes away from the Republicans is not so simple.

Two pervasive and persistent myths about racial voting in the modern South are behind the notion that Mr. Obama might win in places like Georgia, North Carolina and Mississippi.

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.

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.

Mississippi, the state with the nation’s highest percentage of African-Americans in its population, illustrates how difficult Mr. Obama’s task will be in the South. Four years ago, President Bush beat John Kerry there by 20 points. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Mr. Obama could increase black turnout in Mississippi to 39 percent of the statewide electorate, up from 34 percent in 2004, according to exit polls. And let’s assume that Mr. Obama will win 95 percent of those voters, up from the 90 percent who voted for Mr. Kerry four years ago.

If that happened, the black vote would yield Mr. Obama 37 percent of Mississippi’s statewide votes. To get the last 13 percent he needs for a majority, Mr. Obama would need to persuade a mere 21 percent of white voters in Mississippi to support him. Sounds easy, right?

But only 14 percent of white voters in the state supported Mr. Kerry. Mr. Obama would need to increase that number by 7 percentage points — a 50 percent increase. Mr. Obama struggled to attract white Democrats in states like Ohio and South Dakota. It strains credulity to believe that he will attract three white voters in Mississippi for every two that Mr. Kerry did.

Keep in mind that this analysis (and the speculation that Mr. Obama will generate unprecedented black turnout in the South) does not consider the possibility that white voter turnout will rise, too. Passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act led to an upsurge in black voting in the South, but it also caused many white Southerners to register and vote as well — for the Republicans.

Granted, Mr. Obama’s campaign isn’t counting on Mississippi. What about Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, the three states that are routinely cited as new possibilities for the Democratic column this fall?

Mr. Obama can write off Georgia and North Carolina for the same reasons that Mississippi is beyond his reach — although the math in those two states is slightly less daunting. Virginia, however, is the one Southern state that Mr. Obama has a reasonable chance of winning. And it’s precisely because the home of Robert E. Lee, as NBC News’s political director, Chuck Todd, has suggested, is seceding from the Confederacy.

The demographic makeup of the electorate in Virginia is unlike that of any other state in the South. The black population in Virginia is, as a percentage, among the lowest in the region. And during the last two decades, the state has also experienced a huge influx of upscale non-Southerners, who have taken over the Washington suburbs of northern Virginia. (Florida is a perennial target for similar reasons. With a relatively small black population, a big Hispanic voting bloc and a large contingent of relocated retirees from the North, it is the least Southern of the Southern states.)

In the rest of the South, Mr. Obama cannot overcome reality. Even if unprecedented numbers of black voters turn out to vote for him, the white vote will serve as a formidable counterbalance. Mr. Obama should not hope to capture states in the country’s most racially polarized region.

Thomas F. Schaller, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is the author of “Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South.”

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