Our friends at Swing State Project recently completed their work compiling a tremendous resource: a database of presidential results by Congressional districts. Working off that information, Nate Silver created a map showing the CD's where Barack Obama either improved by 9 or more points on John Kerry's 2004 performance, and where Obama's performance was below that of Kerry:
Does that map look vaguely familiar? It should, because it demonstrates weakness for Obama through Appalachia, the Ozarks and the southern Plains. This is the same pattern we saw during the primaries, as in the counties where Hillary Clinton (up through the West Virginia primary) had won over 70% of the primary vote:
Who are the people who live in these counties and Congressional districts?
The ethnic and cultural character of this part of the country has been more static since the 19th century than anyplace in America. Outside of some of the new growth areas north of Atlanta or Huntsville, or in some of the college towns, most of the people in Appalachia trace their heritage back to immigrants from the borderlands of Northern Britain who began settling the region over 200 years ago. Outside of the Northern part of Appalachia—Pennsylvania in particular—relatively few Eastern or Southern Europeans from the great waves of immigration that started in the 1880's have moved in to the area. It's the most homogeneous region in America. The region is home to few Catholics, and is heavily Baptist and Methodist.
In the 19th century, migrants from Appalachia moved west. People from Appalachia settled and put their stamp on the Ozark region of Missouri and Arkansas, on Okalahoma and the southern Plains, on North Texas, and eventually they were a big part of the initial growth of Southern California.
There was a great deal of bloviation during the primaries about how Barack Obama had a problem with "working class white" voters. As shown in the primary maps I did with Kossack Meng Bomin, Obama performed remarkably well during the primaries in many overwhelmingly white areas, and he won most of those areas in November. Furthermore, Obama was able to prevail despite the apprehensions some white voters had due to his race, as described by pollster Stan Greenberg:
I’M finished with the Reagan Democrats of Macomb County in suburban Detroit after making a career of spotlighting their middle-class anger and frustrations about race and Democratic politicians. Bill Clinton wrote in his autobiography that my “extensive research on the so-called Reagan Democrats and what it would take to bring them home” was the reason he hired me as his pollster for his presidential campaign.
For more than 20 years, the non-college-educated white voters in Macomb County have been considered a “national political barometer,” as Ronald Brownstein of National Journal described them during the Democratic convention in August. After Ronald Reagan won the county by a 2-to-1 margin in 1984, Mr. Brownstein noted, I conducted focus groups that “found that these working-class whites interpreted Democratic calls for economic fairness as code for transfer payments to African-Americans.” So what do we think when Barack Obama, an African-American Democrat, wins Macomb County by eight points?
I conducted a survey of 750 Macomb County residents who voted Tuesday, and their responses put their votes in context. Before the Democratic convention, barely 40 percent of Macomb County voters were “comfortable” with the idea of Mr. Obama as president, far below the number who were comfortable with a nameless Democrat. But on Election Day, nearly 60 percent said they were “comfortable” with Mr. Obama. About the same number said Mr. Obama “shares your values” and “has what it takes to be president.”
Given Macomb’s history, this story helps illustrate America’s evolving relationship with race. These voters, like voters elsewhere, watched Mr. Obama intently and became confident he would work for all Americans and be the steady leader the times required.
As in Macomb County Michigan, race seemed to be a factor hurting Obama with some voters in Appalachia and probably the Ozarks and southern Plains as well. Just as Greenberg found white voters in Michigan concerned that Obama would favor Blacks over White, the New Yorker's George Packer found the same fear in Appalachia.
One can quickly look at Nate Silver's map, and conclude that racism is more persistent and hard to overcome in Appalachia, the Ozarks and Southern Plains than it is in other places, like Macomb County Michigan. That may be true.
In the Deep South, which has a large African American population, partisan politics has had a stable racial component: African Americans are almost all Democrats, and in most elections 4 out of 5 white voters vote Republican. In the metro regions of the north, like Detroit, many swing voters—and almost all swing voters are white—are susceptible to appeals that prey on fears and prejudices about African-Americans. In the south the racial division has its roots in the slavery, reconstruction and the struggle of African-Americans to gain full civil rights. In the North, it's the racism brought with whites from the South, it's the racism developed by ethnic immigrants over struggles for jobs and housing, the tension of integration and the still endemic racial separation that divides residential living patterns in places like Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Chicago and Philadelphia.
In Appalachia, the Ozarks and the Southern Plains, there are extremely few African-Americans. Electoral politics didn't deal with integrating African-Americans in to the political system, and white voters haven't felt as if they were personally in competition with African-Americans for economic, social or political status and power. Racial conflict in electoral politics have been fought out in most of the rest of America since at least the 1960's. It's possible that voters in Appalachia, the Ozarks and Southern Plains are no more or less racist than White voters anywhere else.
It's also possible, however, that it was never as visible as it's been in other parts of the country because race was never a factor in their elections the way it was in 2008, when voters who will vote on race were still Democrats (unlike in the Deep South), and thus participated in the Democratic primary. In state politics and in their federal office holders, West Virginia and Arkansas are two of the most Democratic states in America. Those Democratic margins may come in part from support by voters who carry racial prejudices that effect their voting when racial matters arise. In Appalachia and the Ozarks they're still Democrats, and that's why we saw those patterns in the primaries. In other parts of the country, if those voters were voting in a primary, it was the Republican primary.
But a quick look at Nate Silver's map doesn't tell the full story. Look closer. The Obama campaign didn't fight hard in many of the Congressional districts colored red. Only in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri and West Virginia do you seem much red in a state contested by Obama. But look at two other states with overwhelmingly white regions that gave Clinton over 70% of the primary vote but where Obama improved on John Kerry's performance. In the Appalachian regions of Virginia and North Carolina, it's clear that the hard work of the Obama campaign paid off. Like those white voters in suburban Detroit and elsewhere, enough voters who might vote based on racial issues must have felt their concerns assuaged and decided that Obama really was out to help everyone and could be trusted with their support.
Over 150 years after the end of slavery, this country still has problems with race. But we're making progress. These maps show there's still work to be done, but they also show that that work can pay off.