Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Long Rumination on Turnout, the South, and Harold Washington

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about turnout. As several stories in the past few days have discussed, and as we know from the primaries to this point, turnout has been soaring on the Democratic side. Obviously this bodes well for them in the general election in November.

For Obama supporters, increased turnout among African Americans and younger voters has been responsible for the magnitude of many of their victories. As the campaign between Obama and Clinton has intensified and turned nasty, the question that has been asked is whether these voters will still show up in November should Obama be denied the nomination. Likewise, Clinton supporters have argued that her core constituency—i.e. older women, white working class voters—can’t be taken for granted either. Polling released in the past few days about the hesitancy of each side to vote for the other (polling that I would take with a large grain of salt, by the way, given how moods can change over seven months) has re-enforced these fears.

My thinking about turnout was also peaked by the running debate about how an Obama nomination could “change the electoral map” in November. With increased turnout, especially among African Americans, might states that have voted Republican in the past—but with large black populations—potentially vote Democratic in the fall? Here, many people have looked to the south, a region I’ve been writing a lot about recently. A Census Bureau report on the black population in America confirms what we’ve known for a while (see my earlier map from Kevin Phillips circa 1968). Namely, the black population continues to be concentrated in southern states.

For example, ten states—Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland, Louisiana, Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi—account for just under half of the nation’s black population. In six of these states, blacks make up more than 25% of the total population (Mississippi—37%; Louisiana—33%; South Carolina—30%; Georgia—29%; Maryland—29%; Alabama—26%). These numbers make many Democratic operatives salivate, especially with an Obama candidacy driving up turnout and drawing virtually all black voters to his side.

So what’s the problem?? The problem, according to Thomas Schaller, is that black voting doesn’t occur in a vacuum, but tends to produce a reaction among white voters. We would note, for example, that of the states listed above only Maryland is reliably in the Democratic camp election after election. Others have gone Democratic sporadically—Georgia (’92), Louisiana (’92, ’96)—but on the whole these states have been among the reddest of the red over the last few decades. The reason, according to Schaller, is that race is so entwined in southern politics that whites have fled the Democratic party (a process begun by Goldwater and continued through Wallace, Nixon, and Reagan) over the past generation and have become the most solid part of the Republican coalition. While the size of the black population gives Democrats a head start toward carrying these states, the strong Republican tilt of the white vote is able to overwhelm Democratic candidates. Using Mississippi as a specific example, Schaller writes:

“If African-Americans, who are 37 percent of voters, cast 90 percent of their vote for the Democratic nominee, that means Mississippi Democrats begin any statewide campaign with about 33 percent of the vote—or two thirds of the way to a majority. Yet the Republicans control the state’s governorship, both U.S. Senate seats, and have carried Mississippi in the last seven presidential elections.”

We would also note that such a scenario has happened with white Democratic candidates on the ballot. White flight to the Republican camp might intensify with a Democrat like Obama at the top of the ticket.

Schaller’s analysis seems to dovetail nicely with the southern portraits that V.O. Key gave us over fifty years ago. As I’ve noted in several earlier posts, Key wrote that southern politics prior to the recent Republican realignment tended to produce pathologies heavily influenced by the race question. Without a viable opposition party to attract black votes (assuming they had access to the ballot) white politicians were able to demagogue the issue without fear of reprisals. In fact, it was usually electorally advantageous.

Where does that leave us? Is someone like Obama unable to “change the electoral map” in the south? Schaller is highly skeptical of any Democratic future in the south in the short term (even with white candidates). He counsels Democrats to look westward for greener (bluer?) pastures. This is no doubt a wise strategy given what we're seeing in places like Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. While Schaller’s evidence is quite convincing, I’d like to throw out for consideration three southern states that could potentially go Democratic with Obama as the nominee (and perhaps with Clinton too should black voters turn out for her). These states are southern, but not of the deep south, and have four things going for them that might help put them in the Democratic camp. First, they have a sizable black population. Second, while race has been a prevalent issue in their politics, it hasn’t been as crippling and venomous as in some other southern states. Third, they have a large number of highly educated white voters, many born outside of the south. These voters tend to live in what Judis and Texeira call “ideopolises.” These areas tend to have voters who have high education, high income, and socially liberal positions on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, prayer in school, etc. As we know from the exit polling so far this year, Obama has done extremely well in these areas. Finally, these states have elected Democrats statewide recently and, in fact, all have Democratic governors now. I’ll list these states in order of what I would predict to be their likelihood of going Democratic.

First is Virginia. The black population of Virginia, as of 2000, is 20.4% compared to 12.9% nationwide. The black population of the state is largely concentrated in the city of Richmond in the center of the state and in the Hampton Roads/Newport News/Portsmouth/Norfolk area in the southeast corner. Virginia has elected an African American governor—Douglas Wilder in 1989 and has elected two consecutive Democratic governors—Mark Warner (2001) and Tim Kaine (2005) in addition to Democrat Jim Webb to the Senate in 2006. This “purpling” of the state, which hasn’t voted for a Democrat for President since LBJ in 1964, has been fueled by the growth of northern Virginia. The corridor of suburbs stretching westward from Washington, DC from Arlington through Fairfax, Falls Church, and out into Loudon County is a classic example of an ideopolis. The tech boom of the 90’s had its counterpart to Silicon Valley in this area and has been trending more and more Democratic, witnessed most recently by last year’s contest for the state legislature that saw a number of seats go Democratic.

Second is North Carolina. Here, the black population is 22.1% and is much more geographically dispersed than in Virginia. Concentrations of black voters can be found in and around Charlotte as well as the Raleigh/Durham area and in the more rural northeastern part of the state. The state’s governor since 2000 is Democrat Michael Easley and the state’s House delegation in Congress is now majority Democrat. North Carolina last voted Democratic in the presidential race, however, in 1976. As for the “ideopolis” variable, we have the research triangle area of Chapel Hill/Raleigh/Durham with three world class universities and a large tech sector. Orange and Durham counties went overwhelmingly for Kerry in 2004 and Wake county gave Bush only a slight win.

Finally, and least likely to go Democratic, is Tennessee. African Americans make up 16.8% of the state population. It is often argued that Tennessee is in fact three distinct regions (with three distinct brands of politics) and we see a similar pattern in terms of the black population. The largest concentration of black voters is in the south west part of the state, mainly in and around Memphis. Central Tennessee, centered around Nashville, sees a somewhat smaller, but nonetheless significant population of black voters (around 23%). Finally, heavily Republican eastern Tennessee is the whitest part of the state. The state currently has a Democratic governor in Phil Bredesen and voted Democratic in the ’92 and ’96 presidential races (Al Gore). In 2006, African American congressman Harold Ford, Jr. narrowly lost the race for the open Senate seat vacated by Bill Frist. The Nashville area has developed into a region to be known for more than the Grand Ole Opry. Like the Research Triangle and Northern Virginia, it has a thriving tech sector. Davidson county gave Kerry 55% in 2004.

Having said all of this, I don’t want to predict definitively how these states might go this fall. I simply raise them as possibilities which, I believe, are well rooted in the demography, history, and voting trends of each state.

What might tip these states in Obama’s favor? I return to the issue of turnout. According to Schaller, black turnout in the south is in fact higher than in other parts of the country. Thus, he is skeptical of efforts to turn these states blue through greater mobilization. In thinking about this, however, I was reminded of a book I read a year or so ago about another black candidate from Chicago—Harold Washington. When Washington became the first black mayor of Chicago in 1983, he was successful because of an amazing mobilization of the city’s black electorate. On the tail end of the first Daley era, Washington’s campaign was a classic insurgency style effort. Running in a heavily contested Democratic primary, Washington was able to benefit from a 25% increase in black turnout to garner a narrow victory. In the general election, black turnout in Chicago was a staggering 85%, with 99% of the black vote going to Washington. In a campaign, both primary and general, that saw some of the worst race baiting possible, Harold Washington was able to rely on turnout to win. If Obama could produce registration and turnout that mirrors what Washington did, but on a much larger scale, might we see some previously red states go blue?

When Washington ran for and won re-election in 1987, who was one of his main consultants???? David Axelrod, now chief strategist for Obama. Who had just moved to Chicago at the time of Washington's campaign and was working in the community being mobilized??? That's right. See any parallels between these two campaigns???

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