Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What Do We Know About White People???

I’ve been meaning to do some number crunching on the role of race in the presidential election, given how much discussion and coverage it received during the campaign. While I wrote about this subject a bunch prior to the election, I haven’t done much in depth analysis in the aftermath so let’s return to the topic. For this post I want to focus pretty much exclusively on the “white vote.” We know that among African American voters, not only was Barack Obama’s vote overwhelming (about 95%) but also that there wasn’t much variance across regions or states. While some of the states with high African American populations moved into the Democratic camp this year (North Carolina, Virginia) others did not (Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, etc.). It is this latter group of states that was the focus of the oft cited (and discussed here) “Schaller Effect”—the tendency of southern states with large black populations to have white electorates that vote overwhelmingly Republican. Essentially, Schaller argues, the politics of these states have become so defined by the issue of race over the decades that white voters, regardless of class, education, religion, etc., tilt Republican. With an African American on the ballot this year we got a chance to test this theory like never before.

To look at how white voters cast their ballots this year, and to determine whether any underlying patterns exist, I gathered the exit poll data compiled by CNN. The resulting spreadsheet is available here. Nationwide, Obama won 43% of the white vote. When we look at the vote preference based on race, we see that Obama won a majority of the white vote in 18 states, plus the District of Columbia. The map at left highlights those states and shows a pretty clear geographic clustering in the northeast, upper Midwest, and Pacific states with the exception of Colorado--a new battleground between the parties. If the electorate was 100% white he would have received 222 electoral votes, not enough to win the presidency. Thus, we look to those states where he lost the white vote (to varying degrees), but found a large enough minority electorate (black, Latino, Asian, etc.) to overcome his poorer showing among whites. This netted him an additional 10 states (FL, IN, MD, NV, NJ, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA) and provided him the solid electoral college victory that propelled him to the presidency. While there’s probably not anything overly surprising here—Democrats have for years had to rely on a multi-racial coalition to win the White House—looking at the raw numbers is instructive.

Conversely, if we look at the McCain vote among whites, we see a strong geographical dimension to his support. Nationwide, McCain received 55% of the white vote. The map left highlights those states where his white support was the highest--over 10% above his national average. Thus, in a cluster of mostly southern states the Republican nominee got 2/3 or more of the white vote.

Another way we might approach these numbers is to go to those states with the largest black populations relative to the state as a whole. Here we get to the phenomenon described by Schaller—how does Obama do among whites in the “blackest” states?? At left is a chart showing his performance among whites in the 15 states with the most significant black electorates. Overall, he won 8 of these states. However, with the exception of Washington, DC, Obama received a majority of the white vote in only 3 (Joe Biden’s Delaware, his home state of Illinois, and New York). He received more than his national average (43%) in only one additional state—Maryland. When we look at his performance in the Deep South states we seem to see evidence of the white backlash Schaller talked about with his extremely poor showing among whites in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina standing out. These states have large black populations but saw whites vote strongly Republican, a point noted in the map above as well.

What happens when we look at the inverse of these states—i.e. the “least black” ones?? Does McCain do as well as he did in the Deep South or did we see, conversely, Obama do really well? If McCain does equally well we might conclude that northern and southern whites aren’t really that different. If there is a geographical difference, maybe there is something to the hypothesis of racialized voting in the South. At left is a chart showing the 15 “least black” states in the country and Obama’s % of the white vote in each. Here his performance is much better. He won 8 of these states overall and in 7 of these 8 (with the exception of New Mexico) he not only got higher than his national average among whites, he won a majority of white voters. In fact, had some states in this group had a sizable enough minority population—Montana, the Dakotas—he may have added their electoral votes to his total as well. Clearly, it seems, there is a difference among white voters based on geography.

From this, can we conclude that white southerners voted against Obama because he was black?? Not necessarily. An alternative hypothesis is that these voters voted against Obama not because he’s black, but because he’s a Democrat. To get a better sense of what happened in November we need to go back further in time. Let’s look at 2004 when you had two white candidates on the ballot. If the results among white voters are quite similar to what we saw in 2008, our conclusions might need a bit more nuance. By looking at 2004 we can also get a sense of what changes might be taking place across the electorate and whether there is a geographic pattern. Thus, I also gathered the statewide CNN exit polls from the Bush/Kerry contest. What do we see?? Nationwide there wasn’t much difference between the support Obama and Kerry received among whites. In fact, Obama did better, getting 43% of the white vote to Kerry’s 41%.

Looking at the results state by state, we see that in all but 7 states, Obama did better among white voters than Kerry. In 8 states the performance of the two Democrats was identical. In the remaining 35 states, plus DC, Obama did better among whites than Kerry. If you look at the 18 states where Obama’s gains were the greatest (5% or more), he won 13. Four of these states voted Republican in 2004 (Indiana, Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia). Thus, while the black and Hispanic vote was crucial in helping bring these states over to Obama’s side, we can’t ignore his increased performance among white voters as well.

Whereas Obama won 8 of the blackest states, Kerry only won 5. In these states, Kerry received below his national average among white voters (41%) in 8. Aided partially by increased support among African American voters (and also changes in turnout among whites and Republicans, plus greater support among Hispanics), Obama was able to outperform Kerry electorally. Narrowing further in on the white vote (and getting at the Schaller Effect) we see that in these states, Obama’s performance was worse than Kerry’s in four (Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana). Given that 2008 was a much better environment for Democrats than 2004 this is quite interesting. With a faltering economy, an unpopular president leaving office, and unprecedented national organization and fundraising, he did worse among some whites than did a candidate that, while white, was hardly a “good ‘ol boy.” Kerry, portrayed as elite, effete, “French,” and the epitome of northeastern liberalism outperformed Obama in much of the old Confederacy. Plus, given Bush’s cultural affinity with the South, his evangelical faith, and his political rearing in Texas, you’d have expected him to have high levels of support among southern whites. That McCain did better among some states’ white voters lends credence to Schaller’s argument, it seems.

So where does that leave us? With the low level of support Obama received among white voters in some states--relative to John Kerry and in an extremely favorable electoral environment--its hard to discount the assertion that race played some role in the vote. While some of these states have been heavily Republican, we saw Obama outperform Kerry among whites in equally Republican states in other parts of the country. We've also seen many of these states elect Democrats to other offices. The fact that white voters behaved differently in various parts of the country suggests that race is an issue that cuts across the electorate in a multitude of ways. Because race has been intertwined with politics in some places, and completely absent in others, we shouldn't make sweeping assertions about how important this cleavage is. Rather, we should approach the issue with nuance, an appreciation for historical context, and a willingness to explore multiple explanations for the outcomes we've observed. Given that we've had only one election to test our hypotheses, we should hold off on definitive statements until there's more data to parse.

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