Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Some Thoughts On the South

If you’ve been reading my posts over the course of the campaign, you know that the issue of race is something I’ve written a lot about. Well, in a week we’re going to get a lot of data that will clarify many of the questions I’ve been raising and obsessing over.

One of the big questions that has been posed is how Obama will fare in the south. Will the legacy of George Wallace be purged forever? Will black turnout be so high in some states, as to make their electoral votes attainable for the Democrats? Do white southern voters think and vote differently than white non-southern voters? Does the Bradley effect exist, and if so, does it exist everywhere or is it more regionalized?

However these questions get answered, one thing that can’t be ignored is the fact that by having a reason to ask these questions—the reality of the Obama candidacy—we have demonstrated progress. We’ll no longer have to ask ourselves “If an African American got nominated for President, would he win?” Now we’ll know. While race won’t be the only reason Obama wins or loses, it will be a variable that we can finally start to put some flesh on. As a political scientist, I can’t wait to start digging into the numbers.

In thinking about the historic nature of the Obama campaign, I came across on old Time magazine from 1971 focusing on the “New South.” Featuring the just elected Governor of Georgia Jimmy Carter, the issue looked at how the region was trying to move beyond its old, race dominated politics:

Throughout the South, there are signs that the region is abandoning the fateful uniqueness that has retarded its development and estranged its people. William Faulkner’s South—heavy with ghostly Spanish moss, penumbral myths and morbid attachment to the past—is giving way to a South that has discovered it does not need fable to shore up its pride or the past to cloud its future. Moreover, a generation after the process was largely completed in the rest of the U.S., the South is caught up in an economic expansion that is reshaping the social order. The South has become at last a region of investment, both human and economic.

Making history—not living in its vainglories and myths—is the challenge and promise of the South today. The Southern frontier closed in that awful moment when the first man came to the South in bondage, locking the Southern experience into its tragic course. Three and one-half centuries later, the thrall can be broken, the frontier reopened. The South can grown rich while there is still time to safeguard the land from despoliation. It can acquire once more the political power of the sons who helped articulate the nation’s independence. Above all, it has a chance to shed its old hatreds and show the U.S. the way to a truly integrated society.

A little too optimistic or premature?? Perhaps. But should the election returns coming out of places like Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and other states next Tuesday show high levels of support for Obama, and produce electoral votes, we should remember that these votes were not generated in an instant or in a vacuum. Southern voters, like all voters, have grown up, lived, and been politically socialized in a historical and social context. This context evolves and develops over time. Thus, it’s appropriate to appreciate the history of this evolution.

Of course it may turn out that the southern vote will continue to be the outlier in terms of willingness to support a black candidate. Here we return to the thesis of Thomas Schaller in “Whistling Past Dixie.” In short, Schaller believes that Democrats are unable to compete in these Deep South states because of how race clouds the vote choices of white voters. An ingrained racial backlash—especially heightened with a black candidate at the top of the Democratic ticket—works to the advantage of the Republicans. While I don’t normally focus much on polls in my posts, recently released polling suggests that this explanation for southern attitudes might not be pure fiction.

Some good test cases for the role of race in these states might be found down-ballot on Tuesday. In both Georgia and Mississippi, two U.S. Senate races have become highly competitive. In Mississippi, incumbent Republican Senator Roger Wicker (appointed upon the retirement of Trent Lott) finds himself in a tough race against former governor Ronnie Musgrove. In Georgia, Saxby Chambliss is seeking a second term against Democratic challenger Jim Martin in a race that few thought would be close. What I’m interested in comparing is the difference between the votes for Musgrove/Martin and Obama. If we assume that every African American in Georgia and Mississippi who votes for Obama will also vote for Musgrove or Martin (not a perfect but, it seems, pretty reasonable assumption), then the difference between the Senate votes and the Obama vote should show us, roughly (we also need to account for the Hispanic vote) whether white voters had different evaluations of the presidential and senatorial candidates. If the Senate candidates outperform Obama, then there would seem to be reason to suspect that race was a factor.

Whatever happens on Tuesday, we’re going to be in a better position to answer some of the most vexing questions that have infused our politics going back generations. Stay tuned for the analysis.

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