Friday, May 30, 2008

Is Webb the Wrong Virginian to Help Obama??

Over at the Democratic Strategist, Ed Kilgore has an interesting post on all the speculation regarding Virginia Senator Jim Webb's VP credentials. In the context of Barack Obama's alleged "Appalachian" problem, many have looked to Webb as the VP nominee who could immediately give the Democrats a chance in this region. Should Obama be able to win Virginia--and with Webb's help Ohio and Pennsylvania--he would be well on the way to the White House, the argument runs.

Kilgore, however, is skeptical of the idea that the Scots-Irish ancestry of so many in this region has much salience. Rather, he argues that economic messages play best and those candidates who best speak to material needs will succeed, regardless of whether they share some ethnic identity with the mountain folk. As evidence, he looks at the last three statewide races in Virginia--2001 Governor, 2005 Governor, 2006 Senator. In all three races the Democrat won--Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Jim Webb respectively. If we look at the voting ni SW Virginia, we see that, in fact, it was the WASPy Mark Warner who did best (Dem. counties in Red; Rep. in Blue):

2001 Warner:

2005 Kaine:

2006 Webb:

With Warner running for Senate this year, his tremendous popularity in the state could potentially create reverse coattails, leaving Obama able to go elsewhere for his VP pick and still be in position to win Virginia's 13 electoral votes.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008 Book Review--Nixonland

Having finally finished “Nixonland” by Rick Perlstein, I wanted to take some time to lay out my reaction to it. As I mentioned in my short blurb last week, “Nixonland” is the second part of a large project by Perlstein to describe the rise of modern conservatism. This project is extremely important, especially for those on the left, in that it presents a counter narrative to the accepted history of the era. For many liberals, the 1960’s were a time of ascendancy. The Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, the rise of feminism, etc. have tended be portrayed in a triumphal light by many commentators. It was, for many, an era of progress. What Perlstein reminds us, however, is that this “progress” was not universally accepted or agreed upon. This was also an era of resentment and reaction. It is this backlash, and the politics it created, that is the focus of this work.

To get a sense of the political trajectory that is traveled, Perlstein bookends his study with two of the most lopsided elections in American history—1964 and 1972—and asks a simple question: How could a country that had first given Lyndon Johnson such a massive victory turn around and give Richard Nixon an even larger win eight years later? How could the country have swung so dramatically in such a short period of time?

The answer to this question, it seems, is that both of these victories were largely delivered by the same group of people. It is this group of people that are at the heart of Perlstein's work. In short, this turbulent period is defined not by who we would normally think of—the protesters, the rioters, the hippies, the baby boomer youth, the New Left—but rather by what Nixon identified as the “Silent Majority.” These were the millions of Americans who were, for the most part, most of the time, apolitical. They were working and middle class, and as such had an interest in stability, predictability, and order. They were the great center of the American electorate. As the 1960’s unfolds we see this group move perceptibly rightward in much of their voting.

For this to happen, however, something had to change in the American political system. While the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and other events certainly propelled this shift, I think that all of these were in many ways the product of a much larger systemic change beginning during this period. As I was finishing “Nixonland” and trying to put it into perspective, I came to conclude that the book is not just a story of the rise of conservatism, but perhaps more so it is the story of the collapse of New Deal Liberalism. One book that I came across several times in graduate school is Stephen Skowronek’sThe Politics Presidents Make.” In it, Skowronek argues that American history is characterized by periods of “political time.” By this, he means that politics at any given time is defined by a particular “regime”—namely a dominant coalition of interests, ideas, actors, and ideology. Over time, these regimes rise or decline in acceptance as they are more or less successful in solving problems and managing the emerging conflicts in society. Presidents are situated differently to these regimes and are sometimes, though rarely, able to replace one regime with another, or re-order the nature of politics. FDR is the classic example here. With the Depression, the old regime was in disarray and FDR was able to assume power and institute a new governing philosophy with the support of a newly organized coalition of supporters and ideas. It is this regime—New Deal Liberalism—that LBJ inherits some thirty years later. However, by the 1960’s, the ability of this Liberalism to manage the issues of the day is in doubt. As Skowronek explains, presidents like LBJ who seek to expand upon a regime and put their own stamp upon it are oftentimes unsuccessful. They try to do too much, they overreach, and the regime is subject to collapse. This is what we see in “Nixonland.” What the Great Society, the war in Vietnam, and the other policies pushed by Johnson do, in short, is create an unrealistic set of expectations among the public. When these expectations are inevitably not met, backlash is not far away. When this backlash is ripe, members of the dominant regime begin to turn on one another, setting the stage for the realignment of political and voting coalitions.

So, whereas the 1964 landslide is brought about through the votes of the older parts of the New Deal coalition (unions, farmers, urban whites) and newer groups (African Americans, the youth), by the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s these groups are splintering and turning on one another. While the newer members of the coalition are in the process of becoming more radicalized—the rise of Black Power, the balkanization of the anti-war movement, the emerging gay rights movement—those older members of the coalition feel abandoned and thus begin to gravitate rightward. This backlash is fueled by the inability of the old regime to solve the problems of the day. As crime and urban disorder become the top issue of concern to American voters, Liberalism provided no answer or solution. Another great discussion of this, parenthetically, focusing on New York, is provided by Vincent Cannato in “The Ungovernable City,” a biography of John Lindsay.

As this process unfolds, Richard Nixon rises to pick up the pieces. Throughout the book, Perlstein uses Nixon as a lens through which to view the period. Nixon, he argues, is just like those groups who feel abandoned or left behind. Throughout his life, he felt constantly slighted, underestimated, and condescended to. Thus, his political genius was his ability to read the mood of that great mass of Americans who simply wanted to return to a politics and a way of life they felt was under siege: “This was something Richard Nixon, with his gift for looking below social surfaces to see and exploit the subterranean truths that roiled underneath, understood: the future belonged to the politician who could tap the ambivalence—the nameless dread, the urge to make it all go away; to make the world placid again, not a cacophonous mess” (p. 213). He uses the New Left as a foil, mocking their “pseudo-intellectualism” as opposed to his, and the Silent Majority’s solid values and patriotism.

While the story of “Nixonland,” as I argued above, seems to be more about the collapse of Liberalism, it is not necessarily the story of the final triumph of Conservatism. Rather, this is a period where things fall apart without necessarily being rebuilt. It would take Reagan (and this would seem to be where Perlstein will go next) to accomplish this. The Nixon we get in this history is one that is not terribly ideological and without a fixed governing philosophy. In fact, in domestic affairs he accepts many of the liberal assumptions and policies. Furthermore, if we look at other elections during the period, we see a Liberalism that still has some life in it. While Nixon is elected in 1968 and re-elected in 1972, he has no noticeable coattails in congressional elections. The Democrats maintain large majorities in both chambers of Congress and gain seats in the 1970 midterm. So while the Silent Majority was beginning a process of moving rightward, they hadn’t moved wholesale yet. What John and I have spent a lot of time looking at on this site is where these voters ended up.

There seem to be several lessons that can be drawn from Perlstein’s work, especially for those on the left. The first of these is the danger of overreach. What we saw under Johnson, it seems, was an overestimation of the country’s appetite for massive change. Here, I’m reminded of my great professor at UW-Madison, Charles O. Jones. In his writings on policy making and the presidency, he always warned against what many call “the myth of the mandate.” Essentially, big electoral victories tend to be interpreted as a sign that voters are in agreement upon a wholesale policy agenda. The reality, Jones always taught, was that voters vote for candidates for a variety of reasons, many not connected to policy at all. When presidents act as if they have a clear mandate, they set themselves up for failure. Thus, we might look at this turbulent period and ask whether, in the future, a more “humble” or “incremental” approach to governing is warranted, lest we risk the fracturing and backlash that Perlstein describes.

A second lesson I would draw from this story is the need to avoid the temptation of ideological self-righteousness and self-absorption. The great value of Perlstein’s project is that he, as a progressive, is willing to look critically at the left. This period gives him plenty of fertile ground to explore. The fact of the matter is that many of the people he describes (and who have been lionized in many histories of the 60’s) would seem to have been pretty insufferable to deal with. The ultimate failure of people like Jerry Rubin, Mark Rudd, Bobby Seale, and others was not so much that their positions were wrong, but that their tactics made them easy targets for the forces mobilizing on the right. What was lacking among those on the left—and this may have been a function of a Liberalism in decline—was anyone of stature who could put the brakes on the process that was unfolding. The irony of this is that as the war dragged on, and as Perlstein describes, more and more members of the “Silent Majority” were being drawn to the anti-war movement. Had the leadership of this movement been less dogmatic and less confrontational early on, they perhaps might have had more success.

Aside from the main themes just described, there were some sections and topics that I found particularly interesting. First was his discussion of how Nixon was able to implement the “southern strategy.” Here, the role of Strom Thurmond was instrumental. While I had originally read about this before, I think in “The Making of the President 1968,” Perlstein describes the relationship between Thurmond and Nixon in much greater detail. We see how these two were able to court each other and ensure that each's interests were being served. With the Wallace vote threatening to keep the White House in the Democrats’ hands, Nixon was able to convince Thurmond (on issues like busing, school desegregation, etc.) that he would embrace state’s rights and strict constructionism. With Thurmond’s blessing (and signals to other southern leaders and voters), Nixon was able to win enough of the south, including Thurmond’s South Carolina, to capture the presidency.

A second section I particularly enjoyed was his narrative on how Watergate came about. When thinking about this scandal, the conclusion that many draw is that Nixon’s dirty tricks campaign was unnecessary. The fault of this analysis, it seems, is that we tend to view Watergate with the hindsight of knowing how the 1972 election turned out. In other words, why would a president who won 49 states need to break into the Democratic headquarters as part of a systematic process of infiltrating his opposition? What Perlstein gives us is, I think, is more of the answer than we've gotten before. What we see is that going into the 1972 election, Nixon’s victory was anything but assured. His level of popularity fluctuated. Opposition to the war was growing. So after the 1970 midterms, Nixon’s fear of holding the White House intensified and reached a level of paranoia. It was out of this context that Watergate was spawned.

Finally, as should be no surprise to anyone who has read my postings, I was interested in Perlstein’s discussion of race. I’ve long felt that the period of the civil rights movement that has been understudied is the time when the movement came north. As Martin Luther King concluded that issues of race and poverty couldn’t be disentangled, not only did answers and solutions become much more elusive, but the collision of the movement with the entrenched segregation of blacks in northern cities became inevitable and tragic. Thus, we have large scale riots in dozens of northern cities (Newark, Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland) and we are able to see how the reaction and backlash among many whites played out. So, in places like Cicero, Illinois, we see the large story that runs throughout “Nixonland” played out on a small scale. It was here that I found myself less certain about the culpability of those on the left for the backlash that emerged on the right. While its easier to question the tactics of those opposing the war, I find myself unable to say that confronting the poverty, segregation, and discrimination that existed in these cities head on was ill adivsed. It is perhaps because of the intractability of these issues that race continues to be the one cleavage described in "Nixonland" that endures stronger than the others to this day.

Updates to follow…

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Kentucky & Oregan Primary Night Updates


It's not all bad news for Obama in Kentucky. Suburban Louisville's Oldham County, Kentucky's wealthiest and fastest growing in a state where many of its 120 counties are atrophying, gave Obama a respectable 41%.

Kentucky Coal Country went for Hillary Clinton in numbers as lopsided as those in neighboring West Virginia. The Coal Miner's Daughter herself, proud Republican Loretta Lynn's fabled birthplace, Butcher "Holler" went for HRC by a similarly landslide margin, 87% to 9%.

Johnson County is a historically Mountain Republican county whose partisan sentiments have roots in its Unionism during the Civil War. However, results there didn't differ by much from nearby Knott County, still a Democratic stronghold, where Obama only managed 6.5% to HRC's 83%. (A search for Knott's political ancestry came up fruitless, except for the nugget that the county is named for a Democratic governor who was nonetheless a "staunch Unionist." The county's fealty to the Democracy seems to predate the New Deal, whose programs challenged ancestral Mountain Republicanism in deprived Appalachia. No evidence can be found of Democratic landslides here due to United Mine Workers influence, either.)


Retiring U.S. Rep. Darlene Hooley's (D-05) endorsement of Hillary Rodham Clinton seems to have made her competitive in the CD's counties. HRC didn't drop below 45% in any county in OR05 - outperforming her statewide total - and actually narrowly taking Tillamook. Detailed returns may indicate HRC strength in its rural dairy redoubts, and Obama winning the precincts that are displacing that agricultural heritage.

Sitting Gov. Ted Kulongoski saved some face today, despite endorsing Hillary Clinton. His endorsed candidate for the Democratic nomination to challenge vulnerable Sen. Gordon Smith (R), State House Speaker Jeff Merkley staved off an unexpectedly strong challenge by liberal activist Steve Novick, popular among Oregon's Obama acolytes, by a slim margin: 45%-41%.

Bluegrass Preview--And Down The Stretch They Come!!!

Senator Clinton is expected to win Kentucky easily today, although she probably won't receive the margin she did in neighboring West Virginia. One area where Obama is expected to compete (and perhaps win), and which today's Politico points us to, is the Louisville area. As the story notes, the city has certain sections that are expected to benefit each of the candidates. John and I will try and find returns for parts of the city as soon as possible--and we'll be doing some live blogging tonight--to see if anything appears unusual or if either candidate under or over performs.

Three parts of the city to note are: 1) West End. This is the part of the city that traditionally has the largest concentration of African American voters. Blacks make up about 19% of the population in Louisville and 7% statewide. Obviously, this is Obama territory; 2) South End. This should be Clinton country. The South End is historically blue collar and the home to a GM and Ford plant where a large number of residents work. Also, there is speculation that a large General Electric plant in this part of town might soon be closing so economic insecurities may play into Clinton's hand; 3) Highlands. The Highlands is a more gentrified section of town, home to young professionals, the creative class, and University of Louisville faculty. This should be an area where Obama does well. The east side of the city is typically more upper class.

The city and surrounding area comprise the state's 3rd congressional district, now represented by John Yarmuth, an Obama supporter. The 3rd has long been one of the most competitive districts in the country and is always being targeted by both parties. Yarmuth captured the seat from Anne Northrup in 2006. The 3rd is also the only district in the state won by John Kerry in 2006, giving him 51%.

Monday, May 19, 2008 Book Club

I'm going to be doing a series of posts over the next little while, now that the primaries are winding down, on the fantastic new book by Rick Perlstein, "Nixonland." The second in his series on the rise of conservatism in America (following up on "Before the Storm"), the book is essentially a portrait of the period from 1964-1972. What makes his work so interesting is that it challenges, and presents a counter to, the traditional narrative of the 1960's that many have given us. While he discusses at length the anti-war movement, the rise of black power, and other developments on the left, what Perlstein is more interested in explaining is what was going on in reaction to these movements. Using Nixon as the central actor, "Nixonland" is, in short, the history of the Silent Majority.

If you've read this blog, especially many of my earlier posts, you know that this is an era and a movement that I'm fascinated in, and one which I believe can still be felt today. Because I'm not quite finished with the book yet, I'm going to hold off on a long analysis. Also, I'm going to an event at the National Press Club tomorrow at which Perlstein will be discussing his work so I want to hear what he has to say. Nonetheless, pick "Nixonland" up and dive in.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

West Virginia Primary Results

With Senator Clinton’s massive win in West Virginia yesterday, it’s easy to gloss over the numbers. In going through the county by county results this morning, one part of the state really jumped out at me. Deep in the heart of coal country, in the southwestern part of the state and nestled on the border with Kentucky and close to southeastern Ohio, a cluster of counties gave Clinton numbers well beyond what she achieved statewide. In Wayne, Boone, Lincoln, Logan, Wyoming, and Mingo counties, Obama received 14%, 13%, 13%, 11%, 11%, and 8%(!) respectively. The last county really jumped out at me. Not knowing a whole lot of details about this area, I thought I’d explore. Here’s how we might describe it.

Like the rest of the state, this region is overwhelmingly white. The African American percentages in each county are: Wayne--.13%; Boone--.65%; Lincoln--.17%; Logan—2.6%; Wyoming--.12%; and Mingo—2.3%. Economically, each county’s median family income is below the state average, with the exception of Boone County, which has a median family income of about $32,000. Remember, also, that West Virginia's median income is third lowest in the country, so this area is extremely poor. Given this demographic profile, I guess we might be surprised that Obama did as well as he did, all things considered. If we were to identify an area that seems to define Appalachia, especially as its political behavior is being discussed, this would be it. These are counties that are heavily rural, geographically isolated, and economically depressed.

Looking at their political behavior over time, we see a bit more diversity, although this is a pretty solidly Democratic region, especially at the local level. Mingo County has been consistently Democratic, only voting Republican in the landslides of 1972 and 1928. Boone has also been strongly Democratic, only going for the Republicans in ’72, ’20, and ’16. Wayne has gone Republican the last two elections, plus ’84, ’72, ’56, and ’28. Wyoming County voted Republican in ’04 and ’72. It was solidly Republican prior to the New Deal realignment upon which it consistently began to vote Democratic. Lincoln also went Republican in ’04 and ’72, but did as well in ’20, ’28, and ’44. Finally, Logan County has been the most Democratic, only voting Republican in 1928.

Boone County is the largest coal producing county in the state (see rankings here), producing more than double any other county. It, and its neighbors, as such has played an instrumental part in the labor movement throughout U.S. history. Boone, for example, gave Socialist candidate Eugene Debs 13% of the vote in 1912, double his national average. Neighboring Logan County was the site of the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed uprising in American labor history.

We should note that Obama essentially ceded this contest to Clinton and never really campaigned in West Virginia. Given the demographics, one wonders how much he could have caused his numbers to improve had he spent time or resources in the state. Probably not much. Interestingly, these counties fall within the third congressional district, represented since 1976 by Nick Rahall. Congressman Rahall endorsed Senator Obama well before the primary.

Also from West Virginia yesterday, reminiscent of an earlier post of mine about electing judges statewide, the state's top Supreme Court judge got tossed in the Democratic primary. It's generally not a good idea to be photographed with the head of one of the state's biggest energy companies--who has business before the court--on the French Riviera.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

West Virginia Primary LIVE Blogging

John and I will be live blogging the results of the West Virginia Primary as they come in tonight. Check in for updates and analysis.

8:10 PM
AP has already called West Virginia. No big surprise. What John and I are most interested in tonight is not so much the WV numbers but the special election in Mississippi's first district. Democrats are hoping to pick up their third consecutive special election in a heavily Republican district. CBMurray

8:58 PM
In MS-1, Travis Childers (D) leads Greg Davis (R) 60-40% with 8% in. If these numbers hold, you might want to stay away from the bottom of bridges if you're anywhere near a Republican party headquarters. Watch out for falling objects. CBMurray

9:20 PM
Tightening in MS. Down to 6 point lead for Childers. 33% in. CBMurray

10:07 PM
Its tied in MS. CBMurray

10:23 PM
AP has called the race for Childers. The Republicans have now lost three straight special elections in heavily Republican districts--Hastert (IL), Baker (LA), Wicker (MS). CBMurray

10:50 PM
Looks like Obama’s strongest county is Jefferson, at the very end of West Virginia’s panhandle. The reason might lie in the fact that Jefferson is booming with DC’s exurbs and voters there are more influenced by that city and Baltimore than Charleston or Wheeling. JVLaB

The New York Times' website has a nice graphic up now that shows that Jefferson County has the highest median income in the state. More evidence that Obama tends to do better as income goes up. CBMurray

11:45 PM
Surprise: Nebraska held its primary tonight, too, but it seems it’s merely a “beauty contest;” the real delegates awarded in months-ago caucuses. Then, Obama cleaned up, clobbering Hillary 2 to 1. Tonight, she fought him to a draw. She’s ahead by a mere 179 votes with 74% counted. No doubt HRC will use this result to bolster it’s argument that primaries are more “democratic.” JVLaB

12:25 AM
Victorious in tonight’s Nebraska Dem U.S. Senate primary is Scott Kleeb, the “rancher-professor” who ran an unexpectedly tough race in NE 03 in ’06, racking up 45% in a CD that Pres. Bush carried by a 74-24% landslide. Kleeb easily beat back self-financed Tony Raimondo, who switched parties to seek the seat. Kleeb may make a once safe R seat competitive. JVLaB

Voting on the Mississippi--Does Geography Affect Politics???

Today should see Senator Clinton run up a big victory in West Virginia. Demographically, the state seems perfectly suited to her and not well suited at all for Obama, given the patterns we've seen to this point. Much has been written in the past weeks about Obama’s difficulty in winning white working class voters. The results in Ohio and Pennsylvania not only demonstrated these voters’ support of Senator Clinton, but many have put these results within a broader geographic discussion. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the “Pennsyltucky” or “Appalachian” voting patterns not only have had an effect on the nomination contest, but will perhaps have ramifications in the general election should Obama head the Democratic ticket (an excellent discussion of this here). Today’s contest will fill in a big chunk of the Appalachian map.

I have long been interested in how geography might affect political behavior. As I wrote in one of my posts on the Mississippi primary, one thing that characterizes that state’s political history is a linkage between the land, the economy it fostered, the populations that worked it, and the political behavior of those groups to this day.

In fact, arguments of this type infused Kevin Phillips’ “The Emerging Republican Majority.” His discussion of settlement patterns, cultural heritage, etc. showed us that the political behavior we see today has its roots in distant history. Different regions, with different histories, populations, and economies, produce different types of politics.

In thinking about all of this, I thought I’d look at a geographic area that has always interested me. As a student of Wisconsin politics and voting behavior, I’ve come to believe that to understand the success of Democratic candidates in the Badger state, one shouldn’t focus on the usual or obvious suspects---the population centers of Milwaukee and Madison. While these two cities provide the lion’s share of the Democratic votes in the state, to be sure, they are rarely enough to guarantee victory. Winning Democrats need to find votes outstate as well. Where they tend to find these voters is in the string of counties that border the Mississippi River in the southwestern part of the state (see this old post).

Thinking about Wisconsin and Mississippi—two states as different as can be imagined—we see a common characteristic—river counties, namely Mississippi River counties, that are heavily Democratic. Note that on the maps above, Democratic counties are colored red; Republican counties blue.  How do we explain this???

In pondering this for a few days, I began to wonder whether it was something about the river itself that explained its politics. Does geography explain politics?? As I contemplated this, I remembered an argument I’ve heard in recent years about why Democrats tend to do better on the “coasts.” Looking at electoral returns over the last several cycles, one sees, with the exception of the southeast coast, how the coastal areas of the U.S. are the most strongly Democratic parts of the country. The argument that I’ve heard to explain this suggests that these areas are, by virtue of their exposure to international trade, immigration, and cultural exchange, the most diverse in the country. This cosmopolitanism is also seen in high concentrations of universities, corporate headquarters, and media centers. As a result, voters in these areas are more likely to espouse liberal positions and therefore vote Democratic.

If this is true, might we see a similar dynamic in another major coastal area in the U.S., namely along the Mississippi River? We tend not to think about how an “inner coast” like this might be similar to the ocean fronting coasts, but in many ways—especially if we look at this historically—there are some commonalities. During the mid to late nineteenth centuries, the Mississippi River was the central artery of American commerce, linking the interior of the country with foreign export markets via the ports in and around New Orleans. Even today, the Port of South Louisiana is the largest in the United States. Also during this earlier period, Mississippi river hubs were linked to the eastern states via the growing railroad network crisscrossing the country. Thus, in connecting disparate parts of the country the river brought different people, cultures, and economies together, creating a greater degree of cosmopolitanism and diversity than in the more inland areas.

So, have there been any political manifestations of this over the course of our history? Looking at the stretch of the River from Minnesota to Louisiana, we don’t see one party dominate the entire route by winning every state in a given election. Rather, there appears to be, especially in the elections after the Civil War, a regional dynamic—also highlighted by Kevin Phillips—in which Union/Confederate loyalties played out across these states. The northern states along the span of the river (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa) were consistently Republican, while the southern states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky) were consistently Democratic. Missouri, finding itself at the midpoint of the river was more schizophrenic in its behavior. It was Democratic until 1904, after which it became extremely competitive, to the point where it is now considered perhaps the quintessential bellwether state.

In recent electoral cycles, the entire Mississippi River area has tended to be heavily competitive, and from the Democrats’ perspective, extremely important in their attempts to win the White House. To demonstrate this, I thought it would be helpful to look a little more closely than at state maps. Instead, we can look county by county.

What we see is that, even in the years when Democrats lost the general election the counties along the river tended to vote Democratic. Below are maps for the 1988, 2000, and 2004 elections respectively (Democratic counties in Red, Republican counties in Blue). Thus, there seems to be something to the connection between the geography and its voting behavior.

I wondered next if we’ve seen any pattern to the voting this year in the Democratic primary. Indeed, we have. There are 110 counties that border the Mississippi River that have voted to this point: 17 MN; 8 WI; 18 IL; 10 IA; 17 MO; 5 TN; 6 AR; 11 MS; 18 LA. 4 Kentucky counties bordering the river will vote next week. What have we seen this year in the Obama/Clinton contest?

Of these 110 counties, Obama has won 82—75%. If we discount the homefield advantage of Obama in Illinois and Clinton in Arkansas, Obama still has a huge advantage, winning 66 counties to Clinton’s 25. Going out a level, looking at the states, Obama has won 7 of the 9 Mississippi River states. He lost Clinton's home state of Arkansas along with Tennessee, which has a short border with the river.

Beyond the overall numbers, we see a very clear pattern to the distribution of these counties. This distribution is reminiscent of the pattern I described above. Below is a map I’ve produced that shows the voting in each of these 110 counties. Obama counties are in green, Clinton counties in red. What we see, essentially, is a geographic area—the Mississippi River—that is in reality three distinct sub-regions. In the northern stretch—Minnesota to southern Illinois—Obama wins the vast majority of counties. In the southern stretch—Louisiana though Mississippi—Obama is also dominant. Clinton does best in the middle stretch—Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas—although Obama wins a number of counties here too.

What explains this regional pattern? When I started thinking about this region a few weeks ago, I wondered if there was a racial dynamic. In examining these 110 counties, I coded the African American percentage of each. In the northern stretch, the counties are almost totally white. While Hennepin and Ramsey counties in Minnesota (Minneapolis and St. Paul) have a black population of 10% and 9% respectively, only one other county in Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Iowa has a black population above 4%. In Illinois, you have a few counties with a sizable black population (St. Clair, Jackson, Alexander) but for the most part these counties are almost exclusively white.

On the southern stretch, you see the inverse. Here, the counties have extremely large black populations. The Mississippi counties are on average 62% African American and the Louisiana counties are over 40% black (with 3 above 60%).

In the middle, and most divided stretch, you have a more moderate black population. The Missouri counties, for example, are roughly 11% black and the county with the highest black population, St. Louis city, went heavily for Obama. Clinton did win the counties in the boot heel that have relatively large black populations although she also won the northern counties of “Little Dixie” that have small black numbers. Likewise, in Tennessee, the one county Obama won (Shelby--Memphis) has the largest black population. In Arkansas, the two counties with the largest black population, Phillips and Lee, were also for Obama while the whiter counties went to Clinton.

To expand the analysis a bit I decided to map beyond only the counties that border the river to take into account some more of the surrounding land. Below we see the map, with the general pattern described above. A fuller shading in of the states shows Clinton’s strength in Missouri and Arkansas more than when I highlighted the river counties. Also note the Edwards counties in blue, won during the Iowa caucuses.

So race seems to be a factor. However it isn’t simply that Obama’s support increases as the black population increases. Rather, the dynamic seems to be more nuanced. Over the last month or so, there has been much debate about a U shaped distribution representing the vote for Obama and the size of a state’s black population. This debate gets most interesting when we think about why the whitest states have been so heavily for Obama.

So there seems to be something going on here. I've been tossing this around in my mind for the past few weeks and have been struggling for an explanation beyond one focusing solely on race. For the northern stretch of the river, I would throw one possibility. From the outset, Obama has based his campaign on a message of “change.” More specifically, he has pledged to change the way politics is conducted and has railed against special interests, lobbyists, and the like. In many ways, this message echoes a political culture, Progressivism, that was founded in and is well ingrained in the upper Midwest. Whether it be the LaFollette led Progressive movement in Wisconsin or the Democratic Farmer Labor movement in Minnesota, Obama’s message seems to resonate among populations that, while demographically are very different, have a shared political heritage that jibes with his message. Looking at current polling, Obama is performing better against McCain than Hillary Clinton in these states (see here to compare Clinton and Obama versus McCain). This, perhaps suggests that this part of the country is not just important to Democrats, but might be more prone to go Democratic with Obama heading the ticket.

So, while we might not say that Clinton's "Mississippi River Problem" isn't as severe as Obama's "Appalachian Problem," there do seem to be some worrisome signs for her, especially on the northern stretch. We can be sure that come November these states along the Mississippi River will be highly competitive. As the Democratic nomination begins to wind down, it seems as if Senator Obama is perhaps better positioned to take advantage of the politics that this stretch of land creates.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Tarheel Primary Results First Look

Having gotten a little rest since last night, some first impressions on North Carolina. Here's a nice breakdown of the delegate allocation, with maps. Last week I did a post on the 1st district. We saw last night how its strong showing for Obama helped him pile up his statewide total. The 1st went 63-34% to Obama. Indeed, all indications, at least this morning, point to the role that the black vote played in building Obama's margins. African Americans made up one-third of the electorate and gave 91% of their ballots to Obama. In fact, looking at this map from the North Carolina State Board of Elections, turnout seemed to be quite high in the areas with high numbers of rural blacks--again the 1st district would be a place to point to.

CNN's exit polls are here. While the racial disparity in the voting has been noted, the age divide is equally striking. In fact, with all the talk of the role of race or the blue collar/white collar division being the key variables in explaining vote choice, age may prove to be the more consistent. With large increases in younger voters, Obama has been able to make up for his poor showing among seniors.

*Map courtesy of

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Indiana/North Carolina Primary Nite LIVE Blogging

1:31 AM
In the time it took me to cab home and take my dogs for a spritz, things got even tighter in Lake County. We now have a winner. Clinton by a whisker. Lake County ended up going 55-45% Obama. I feel good about highlighting Lake County earlier in the day but I had no idea things would play out as they did. Signing off. CBMurray

12:37 AM
Gary is in and Obama's far ahead in Lake Co., but the "white flight" towns are going strong for Hillary. In fact, Obama lost a number of white majority wards in Chicago city itself in the Illinois primary. Most of the rest of Lake Co. yet to report is almost entirely white. It's getting very close, but if white Chicagoans rejected favorite son Obama's presidential ambitions - even after they voted for him for the Senate - will the white voters who fled mutli-racial Chicago (or Hispanic East Chicago or Afro-Am Gary) allow him to finally overtake the statewide totals?

Obama's better hope is what's left of Monroe County, the university center. JVLaB

11:21 PM

Lake Co. Clerk Tom Philpot victorious in the County Coroner primary!
A “major step” for Philpot, blogs the Times of NW Indiana!

Oh, and Van Til won his Supervisor’s renomination and Lake County Recorder Mike Brown is back!!

But no numbers for president, and none for the razor-thin Dem gubernatorial battle between former U.S. Rep. Jill Long Thompson and an wealthy Indy architect, Jim Schellinger. Seems the locals are milking it for the attention, or simply just care more about their local races. JVLaB

10:57 PM
Waiting for Lake County. A dispatch from Gary. This could get interesting. CBMurray

10:06 PM
Hillary’s shrinking margin might not be overcome by yet-to-report Lake County, which, although home to Gary, is only 26% Afro-Am. Much of East Chicago is becoming Hispanic – a Hillary-friendly constituency – and the rest of the county is largely working class white.

We might not know until tomorrow, as the The Times of NW Indiana reports “Porter County won't have final count tonight,” thanks to being overwhelming by unexpected Democratic turnout. It seems that students/new voters from Valparaiso University turned out in the record numbers forcing election officials to have to print more Democratic ballots. Obama’s big numbers might come more from Porter than Lake. JVLaB

9:35 PM
A detour into the absurd. In the IN 7th Democratic primary, which Andre Carson has won, there is the candidacy of Joseph C. "Hippie Joe" Stockett II--bartender, neo-Nazi activist, and past candidate for this seat. Laugh though we may, as of 9:32 pm, 912 individuals have cast a vote for him. CBMurray

9:22 PM
Confirming my recent surmise, Watauga County is coming in strong for Obama. Surrounded by counties where HRC is scoring 3 to 1 and 4 to 1 margins, Obama is leading Watauga 57-42% with half of precincts reporting. JVLaB

9:02 PM
St. Joseph County in Indiana is in. 53-47% for Obama. Centered in South Bend, home to Notre Dame, this would seem to present a nice test case for the confluence of the youth/high education variables that have been pro-Obama with the Catholic vote that has gone strongly for Clinton to this point. CBMurray

8:22 PM
With 26% in, Rep. Andre Carson (D) is pulling away from the pack for renomination to a full term. Elected in a special last month to fill the seat of his deceased grandmother, the late Rep. Julia Carson (D), Carson, Congress’ second Muslim Member, faced a well financed challenge by former state health official Woody Myers. But Myers is only taking 27%, just 2 points more than state Rep. David Orentlicher, the only major white candidate in the primary. JVLaB

Hoosier politics guru Brian Howey reported a heavy GOP cross over vote. As he predicted are they voting against Carson, but also for the white candidate?

8:08 PM
I'm finding that the NC individual county websites have better returns. Buncombe County (Asheville) and Durham are providing instant updates. CBMurray

7:58 PM
No Indiana returns in yet for Lake or Monroe County so I'd expect the margins to shrink a bit in Obama's favor. CBMurray

7:45 PM
Why is Putnam County, reliably Republican in general elections, going so heavy for Obama?
Two reasons that keep in the trend for Obama voters: county seat Greencastle is home to DePauw University and the county's median income is slightly higher than the Hoosier State as a whole. JVLaB

7:27 PM
According the IN Sec of State website, Obama's overtaken HRC, as of 7:25 PM, 15,711 to 13,668.

7:06 PM
First numbers are trickling in from Indiana, first polls to close in November.

Vigo County, home to Terre Haute, has been dubbed a bellweather county, as it's voted for the general election victor in every presidential contest since 1912 except '52 when Aldai Stevenson bested Ike by a mere 35 ballots.

Vigo's only 6% Afro-Am, but with 89% reporting, Obama has crossed the 40% threshold. JVLaB

Final Thoughts As Indiana Votes

John and I will be live blogging the results tonight from the election bunker. One county I’m going to be focused on is Indiana’s Lake County. As I mentioned in my post last week, Lake County is one where Obama must do well if he’s going to win. It has a sizable African American population (25%) and is situated just across the Illinois border and Chicago. Thus, it is served by Chicago media and should be highly familiar with Obama, his record, and his candidacy.

Yesterday, Indiana politics guru Brian Howey did a chat on Talking about Lake County, he said:

“I asked Obama last week if his organizing activities extended across the stateline into Indiana. He said that as the steel mills closed, there were many Hoosiers in the churches and parishes he worked with, and a number of his Illinois neighbors migrated to Indiana. Yes, it's one large economic entity, all inter connected. Obama was expected to have an advantage in NW Indiana, but local sources believe the race has tightened up there. And it was hard to miss the racial fault lines in Da Region. Gary Mayor Clay, Sen. Earline Rogers and a number of African-Americans endorsed Obama; but a number of white mayors from Whiting, Hammond, Crown Point and Hobart sided with Hillary. If Obama loses the 1st Congressional District, he won't win Indiana. It was also noteworthy that Rep. Pete Visclosky didn't take a side. If he had endorsed either one, it would have been a big lift.”

Lake County, as Howey suggests, has an interesting, if troubled, political and economic history. Largely created by the steel industry—and subject to its growth and decline—the area is a microcosm of the white ethnic working class/African American tension that I’ve written a lot about here. When the economy was booming the blue collar whites (many first or second generation Americans) prospered along with blacks drawn north during the Great Migration. When economic fortunes declined, fault lines emerged. The city of Gary, for example, has seen its population decline by half since 1960. In his 1964 challenge to LBJ, George Wallace actually won Lake County in the Indiana primary (and received 16% in the '68 general vs. 11% statewide). Bobby Kennedy's campaign was given a lift with his victory in the '68 Democratic primary, aided by his deft handling of the tense racial dynamics of the county. Kennedy biographer Joseph Palermo describes the campaign here.

Despite these underlying tensions, the county has a solid Democratic voting history. The only time the Republicans captured the county, since Eisenhower's presidency, was in Nixon's 1972 landslide. It has given the Democratic nominee over 55% since 1984 and even Ross Perot's reformist message failed to resonate as he underperformed here compared to his statewide and national average. Lake County also has a rather colorful history of political corruption. For some reading on this subject, see here, and here. Robert Pastrick, the longtime mayor of East Chicago, was defeated for re-election after a court ordered special election called amid widespread allegations of vote rigging. He is now a superdelegate pledged to Senator Clinton so Obama supporters might be wise to watch very closely as the returns come in.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Louisiana Special Election

Coming on the heels of the Illinois 14th special election that saw the Democrats capture a long held Republican seat, Saturday saw Act 2 of this play as Don Cazayoux won the Louisiana 6th (full election returns here). Succeeding the retired Rep. Richard Baker, the district had been in Republican hands for over thirty years. The district was John Kerry's second best in the state (after the New Orleans based 2nd) in 2004, giving him 40%.

The 6th, which revolves around Baton Rouge and encompasses eight surrounding parishes is home to both Louisiana State and Southern Universities. What makes the district quite interesting demographically, and what must have played some part in the outcome, is that it was greatly affected by Hurrican Katrina. As thousands fled the New Orleans area, Baton Rouge became a popular settlement spot for displaced families. Thus, the population of the district has grown disproportionally in the past few years. Whereas the 2000 census put the African American population at 33% in the district, one must assume that it has gone up since Katrina. See a great Brookings Institution report on the Katrina diaspora, with attention to Baton Rouge, here.

Soon to be Congressman Cazayoux joins an increasingly large and influential group of newly elected Blue Dog Democrats. As the DCCC has shown a greater willingness to recruit and fund socially moderate and fiscally conservative candidates, seats that were once seen as out of reach--especially in the solidly Republican south--are now coming into play. We'll see another example of this in next week's runoff in the open Mississippi 1st district. Vacated by Roger Wicker upon being appointed to Trent Lott's old Senate seat, the district, while largely rural, does include the Memphis suburbs in De Soto county.

While one wonders about the durability of the Democrats' prospects in these seats, victories like these seem to give credence to the "50 State Strategy" that the party leadership has been advocating recently.

*Photo courtesy of Baton Rouge Advocate

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Watauga Watershed?

Watauga County, deep in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge might be a chink in Hillary’s fabled “Hillbilly Firewall,” and a win here by Obama will indicate the Tar Heel State’s shift from reliably Republican to highly competitive.

Boone, the county’s seat, is a college town home to Appalachian State University. Obama has won or performed well in college counties even in Appalachia, winning Virginia Tech’s Montgomery County and winning 20 to 30% more in Ohio State’s Athens County than surrounding counties.

Watauga is a historically Mountain Republican county, a rare spot in the Old Confederacy where Republicans were competitive. Democrats have only carried Watauga four times since 1924, including only two out of FDR’s four wins. Another election that Watauga forsook the GOP was 1964, when historically Democratic counties voted for Republican Barry Goldwater and his opposition to civil rights acts. Like other Southern Appalachian counties, Watauga has an almost non-existent Afro-Am population, and racial appeals have found little resonance among voters here. Watauga was one of the worst counties for George Wallace in 1968 and Strom Thurmond in 1948. And Watauga voted for Harvey Gantt, the black former Charlotte mayor in his 1990 and 1996 challenges to former Republican Senator Jesse Helms, notorious for his racially divisive rhetoric. That’s good news for Obama.

Boone is booming, and turnout hit a record high of 24,000 in 2004, up from just around 15,000 in 1998. And, like a lot of booming, economically growing North CarolinaAsheville, the Research Triangle – Watauga is trending Democratic. U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx lost the county her 2006 race, not regarded as competitive and in 2004, Kerry picked up four points over Gore in 2000, chalking up 47%.

If Obama can win these growing, Dem-trending areas, his campaign has solid evidence to counter Hillary Clinton’s contention that she would be stronger nominee, more likely carry the newly competitive swing states like Colorado and North Carolina.