Polarized Expectations

12 03 2008

Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Mississippi primary 61-38 last night. But even that impressive margin of victory seems to dwarfed another statistic: she won the white vote 3 to 1 and he carried the black vote by a 9 t0 1 margin. Those stats seem to be getting as much media coverage as the outcome itself. But I can understand the desire to report that statistic. It describes a stark and powerful reality.

But this is not something unique to Barack Obama or even this election. If the media is going to report that stat there should at least provide some brief explanation regarding the history of racially polarized voting in the American south. Otherwise, we are left with two seemingly conflicting ideas.

On the one hand, Obama is just another black candidate that enjoys overwhelming support from black voters and Clinton is just the white candidate with the lion share of white voters. That of course, not that would make no sense in the larger context of this contest since Obama won convincingly in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont and Wyoming. All of which are states in which whites are dramatically overrepresented compared to their national numbers.

How do you reconcile all of this? Well, generally speaking, the more diverse the state, especially if there is a history of racial tension, the more likely it is that racially polarized voting will exist. Again, this frequently has little to do with the candidate themselves and more to do with the dynamics of voting population on the ground. This is among the chief reasons Congress reauthorized the extension of the Voting Rights Act to ensure that minorities are represented at various levels of government.

In 2005, Richard L. Engstrom, a professor of political science an expert on voting behavior, testified before Congress on the very persistence of this phenomenon:

Racially polarized voting has been a prominent feature of the political landscape in the American South, and it was a central consideration in Congress concluding previously that Section 5 needed to be extended, first in 1970, and then again in 1975 and 1982. Unfortunately, 24 years after the last extension of the provision, racially polarized voting still remains prominent in the South today. While this phenomenon conflicts with the normative values of our country, and therefore is difficult for some to admit, it remains an empirical fact.

This cleavage is a pronounced aspect of the competition between the two major political parties in the South today. But racially polarized voting is not limited to the partisan context alone. Its presence has been documented in numerous party primaries and nonpartisan elections in recent years as well. Racially polarized voting in the South is not yet a phenomenon of interest to only the historians of southern politics.

This in part is what makes this election so historic.

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One response

12 03 2008
Wayne

As a southerner, you don’t have to tell me! I’ve seen it, point blank. And mississippi, my next door neighbor, is rife with racial drama to this day. At least they’re slowly moving towards progress. Mississippi needs 2 large cities–that’ll move them from a hick state to a potential swing state. Jackson’s about the size of pre-katrina new orleans (without the metropolitan area surrounding it), and all the gulf states are simply tourist spots for people in surrounding areas.

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