Obama’s Southern Problem—And Ours

A closer look at how white southerners voted suggests just how little support Obama can expect from the region.

By Alec Dubro Jun 24, 2009

“The New South,” wrote journalist Robert Scheer in the 1970s, “is the Old South with air conditioning.”

Unfortunately, even 30 years of central home air hasn’t cooled the white heat of the South.

In the midst of the great Obama victory last November, an overwhelming percentage of white voters in the states of the former Confederacy rejected the first Black president, even as many of them voted down ballot for Democrats.

The South—Old or New—remains the heartland of opposition to all things progressive, posing a formidable threat to the new administration’s agenda.

For instance, every southern Republican senator voted against Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The dependable opposition to health care reform lies centered in the South and will remain so.

While some people think it’s hard to separate racism from other reactionary trends, right-wing America has always been centered on race. And nowhere is this truer, or more dominant, than in the former (or maybe not so former) Confederacy states.

To be sure things are visibly different than they were before integration, but the 2008 presidential election revealed that much of the change remains on the surface.

Exit polling discovered that between 84 and 88 percent of whites in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana voted for John McCain. In Georgia, South Carolina and Texas, the McCain white vote ranged from 76 to 73 percent.

In other words, the white vote in the former slave states remained about what it was during Reconstruction.

Overall, Obama won 46 percent of white women and 41 percent of white men, but not in the South, which, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, is “moving contrary to the rest of the country.”

While the heart of the Cotton Belt longed for a more robust white supremacy, the remainder of the Old South didn’t do much better. Seventy-six percent of white voters in Georgia and 72 percent of white voters in Texas and South Carolina voted Republican.

It’s a little hard to believe that such an overwhelming number of voters thought McCain was the superior candidate. Never a favorite of Southern whites, McCain had a campaign that was lurching and jabbering and which must have instilled doubt in many voters. And Sarah Palin’s act probably wore pretty thin by November 4.

No matter, most people in the South appeared to vote their race.

Not until you move north to Maryland—itself a former slave state, if not Confederate—did a majority of whites begin to vote for Obama. In northern and western states, Obama made sufficient inroads among white voters—even male whites, and especially younger whites—that he won the election.

The situation in the Deep South may even be worse than it appears.

If general voting patterns hold true, then about 95 percent of white men in those states voted for McCain. That means that younger white men voted along with their elders. Not only is this a depressing pattern, but there’s no indication that it will change any time soon.

So, what’s the matter with Dixie?

Leroy Johnson is the director of Jackson, Mississippi-based Southern Echo, and he concedes that there’s certainly been a racial change in Mississippi, but it obviously hasn’t run deep enough.

Southern Echo fought hard in 2008 for Obama, registering 100,000 new voters, but, Johnson said, it didn’t counter white fears.

“Around the state you heard, ‘what is this world coming to?’,” Johnson recalled. “When some preachers compared Obama to the anti-Christ, plenty of people were willing to believe it.”

Some voting analysts stress politics more than race.

Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said, “Obama’s numbers were not much lower than John Kerry’s. Southern working class culture is just very conservative. It’s all anti-government sentiment.”

Emory University government professor Merle Black has been studying the rise of the Republican Party in the South for decades. He also sees many Southerners as anti-government but admits “the vote in the Deep South is the most racially polarized in the nation. While 88 percent of whites voted for McCain, 97 percent of Blacks voted for Obama. Right now, the Democratic Party is perceived as a Black party, attending to the needs of African Americans.”

But white voters in the rural areas of the North are also nominally anti-government and many more of them voted for Obama than did their counterparts in the South. Certainly, the economic downturn forced many workers to vote their pocketbooks. But so was the aggressive push by labor unions to win back the so-called Reagan Democrats. Wrote David Moberg in In These Times:

Election-night polling by Peter Hart for the AFL-CIO showed that 67 percent of union members voted for Obama while only 30 percent chose McCain. (Compare that to the 51 to 47 percent advantage Obama had over McCain in exit polls of non-union voters.)

But race played an enormous, if unseen, role. A fascinating analysis by Charles Franklin appeared on Pollster.com eight days after the election. Wrote Franklin:

There is considerable variation in the percentage of whites who voted for Obama. Where African Americans made up less than 20% of the vote (according to exit polls), whites varied from 30% to 60% in their support for Obama but with no relationship to the size of the African American vote. As the African American electorate rose above 20%, white support for Obama fell sharply to barely 10%.

In other words, to know them is to fear them. This is, to say the least, not good.

Franklin also confirmed that in states that were less than 25 percent African American, “the trend line for Obama is above that for Kerry, indicating a general improvement among whites.” But in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, “Obama had his worst performance with white voters.”

The limitation of this analysis is that it’s confined to state data.

If we look only at cities, the numbers change. Blacks constitute 25 percent of the population in New York City, and obviously that threatening percentage didn’t send many whites running for McCain. In fact, every city more than 500,000 voted for Obama and did so with the help of white voters. Even in New Orleans, Obama took a better percentage of white votes than Kerry had done.

The key seems to be a combination of ethnicity, class and mobility. White voters in the most southern states just don’t move much, and voters from elsewhere don’t seem to move in.

In southern states with high rates of in-migration—North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, even South Carolina—Obama received two to four times the white votes as he did in those states which haven’t changed. Immigrants-turned-citizens tend to vote Democratic, and the mid-South has many of them, but the real difference is the whites from the North, Midwest and West.

In short, whites whose roots lie in the slave South seem to vote as if Jim Crow were still alive.
And maybe in those places, he still is.

But the results move far beyond a trio of underdeveloped states. The southern sentiment that rings so clearly in the old Cotton Belt still drives southern obstructionism and conservatism. As Michael Lind, writing in The Daily Beast, baldly put it, “The battle in Washington is not between liberals and conservatives; it is between the Union and the South.”

Alec Dubro is a freelance writer in Washington DC.