March 15, 2008


What’s the Real Racial Divide? (MATT BAI, 3/16/08, NY Times Magazine)

Obama, fueled by overwhelming African-American support, has trounced Clinton in most big cities, while Clinton has pounded him in outlying areas. In Ohio, for instance, Obama won only the four largest urban areas in the state, while Clinton took 70 percent of the vote in smaller cities and towns; if you took only a passing glance at the electoral maps of states like Ohio, Missouri and Texas, you would think you were looking at one of those stark red-and-blue maps from recent general elections, with Obama cast as the Democrat and Clinton as the Republican. And yet, oddly, it is Obama who has emerged as the preferred candidate of sparsely populated rural states that are thought to be more conservative, and it is Clinton who has taken the larger, industrialized states. (Obama did carry his home state, Illinois, and neighboring Missouri, but he won the latter by only a single percentage point.) To put this simply, Obama wins in major urban areas but can’t seem to win in urbanized states, while Clinton wins in rural communities but consistently loses in rural states. Why?

One relevant fact, as many Clinton supporters have pointed out, is that rural states often hold caucuses rather than primaries, which require the kind of local organizing at which Obama’s team excels. It might also be that the economic downturn has had a more traumatic effect in bigger states, making the voters there responsive to Clinton’s more pragmatic message. It is also possible, however, that the disparity between Obama’s performance in urban primaries and rural caucuses tells us something larger — and counterintuitive — about race in America.

The assumption has always been that a black candidate should perform worse among white voters in states with less racial diversity because those voters are supposedly less enlightened. In fact, the reverse has been true for Obama: in the overwhelmingly white states of Wisconsin and Vermont, for instance, he carried 54 and 60 percent of the white voters respectively, according to exit polls, while in New Jersey he won 31 percent and in Tennessee he won 26 percent. As some bloggers have shrewdly pointed out, Obama does best in areas that have either a large concentration of African-American voters or hardly any at all, but he struggles in places where the population is decidedly mixed.

What this suggests, perhaps, is that living in close proximity to other races — sharing industries and schools and sports arenas — actually makes Americans less sanguine about racial harmony rather than more so. The growing counties an hour’s drive from Cleveland and St. Louis are filled with white voters whose parents fled the industrial cities of their youth before a wave of African-Americans and for whom social friction and economic competition, especially in an age of declining opportunity, are as much a part of daily life as traffic and mortgage payments. As Erica Goode wrote in these pages last year, Robert Putnam and other sociologists have, in fact, found that people living in more diverse areas evince less trust for others — no matter what their race. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that while white Democrats in rural states are apparently willing to accept the notion of a racially transcendent candidate, those living in the shadow of postindustrial atrophy seem to have a harder time detaching from enduring stereotypes, and they may be less optimistic that the country as a whole would actually elect a black candidate.

We won't know until the GOP fields a major black candidate, but it seems likely that Senator Obama could have avoided this had he run on ideas instead of on black empowerment. When he made it an election about identity he made race the central factor in the equation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 15, 2008 8:17 AM

The Democrats in those hard-core Republican states like Idaho and Utah can afford to be extremist because they don't have to win any elections.

Back in the '80s/early '90s I knew a woman who'd been a Wyoming delegate to several of the Dem national conventions. She was also hardcore NEA and NOW and all those other organizations you'd expect. All it took to be that delegate was the gumption to want a paid vacation every four years, as there was so little competition. I pity the kids of Casper she was indoctrinating. I could also see her being a hardcore Barack [redacted] Obama supporter because ti would prove to herself how much better she was compared to her Neanderthal, racist. Cheney-loving neighbors.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at March 15, 2008 4:17 PM