What we didn't overcome, part 2.

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Nov. 12 2008 7:50 PM

What We Didn't Overcome, Part 2

Why you can't blame it all on the South.

Earlier this week, I wrote a column about Barack Obama's failure to win the single biggest voting bloc in the United States: white people. No Democrat has won the white vote since Lyndon Johnson. Obama lost the white vote by 12 percentage points. That's a much narrower margin than John Kerry's 17 points in 2004 and a slightly narrower margin than Al Gore's 13 points in 2000. But Obama's white-vote deficit is significantly larger than that of the last two Democrats who actually got themselves elected president. Clinton got it down to two percentage points in both 1992 and 1996, and Jimmy Carter got it down to four percentage points in 1976. (To see all this data in a chart, click here.) Being white Southerners probably helped Clinton and Carter shrink the white-vote deficit because the South is where, since Johnson, Democrats have had the hardest time winning white votes. (On the other hand, being a white Southerner didn't help Carter's re-election bid. In 1980 he lost the white vote by 20 points. Nor did it help Gore in 2000. Maybe white Southerners were simply tired of them by then.)

White resistance to supporting Democratic presidential candidates is troubling partly because much of that resistance is a lingering reaction to Johnson's passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. After I wrote this in my earlier column, some readers asked whether white resistance to voting Democratic was an entirely Southern phenomenon that, simply because white Southerners vote so disproportionately Republican—in Mississippi and Alabama, 88 percent voted for McCain—skewed the numbers for white voters nationwide. Should whites outside the South be held harmless? Answer: No, not entirely. I refer you to a second data chart here that shows the percentages by state. Obama won the white vote in 18 states and in Washington, D.C. All 18 states lie outside the South, and most are predictably liberal. (New York, Vermont, etc.). But Obama lost the white vote in eight of the states where he won the overall popular vote. That's no great surprise in North Carolina or Virginia, the two Southern states Obama carried, or even in Pennsylvania or Ohio, where white working-class voters were known to be resistant. It's a little surprising in Maryland, New Jersey, and New Mexico. All three states have Democratic governors and Democratically controlled state legislatures. (The eighth state, Nevada, has a Republican governor, a divided state legislature, and a political culture I know nothing about.) David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonprofit think tank focused on issues relating to African-Americans, tells me that Obama improved on Kerry's showing among white voters almost everywhere outside the South. The exceptions were Arizona and Alaska, where the McCain-Palin ticket enjoyed a home-field advantage; Massachusetts, where Kerry enjoyed a home-field advantage; and Rhode Island and Connecticut, in Kerry's backyard. So yes, there's been progress since 2004. But things were pretty bleak in 2004. Among the states where Kerry failed to win a majority of white voters were New York, California, Delaware, Michigan, and Illinois —all states where Obama won the white vote this time out.


Many readers asked why I cared so much about racial polarization along party lines among whites but not among blacks. It's certainly true that African-Americans were virtually monolithic in their support for Obama—95 percent of the black vote went to Obama—and vote overwhelmingly Democratic in general. Why don't I lose sleep over that? Three reasons:

1) Whites constitute 74 percent of the vote. Blacks constitute 13 percent of the vote. Persistent voting patterns are more worrying among big groups than among small groups because big groups wield more power. Case in point: Only three Democrats have been elected president over the past 44 years.

2) The Republican Party doesn't offer much to African-Americans. Apart from its resistance to supporting civil rights protections since the mid-1960s, the GOP has been generally hostile to government programs that help low-income people. That matters to African-Americans because a disproportionate number of them are poor.

3) With respect to Obama, one can hardly accuse African-Americans of swarming to his candidacy just because he's black. As late as October 2007, a CNN poll showed Hillary Clinton leading Obama among black registered Democrats 57-33 percent.

Let me repeat what I wrote in the earlier column: I don't consider any given white person's vote against Obama, or against Democrats in general, to be racially motivated. Within any individual state, all sorts of political and sociological factors may influence a white person's vote apart from race. But when the Democrats go nearly a half-century without winning a majority of white votes in any presidential election, it's necessary to ask why, even after we've passed the remarkable milestone of electing our first black president.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.


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