If you’re an election geek like us, you’ll have seen this electoral map from the NYT. It shows which counties in the US actually shifted toward McCain, in comparison with how they voted in 2004. (The map showing which counties shifted by how much to Obama is interesting too.)
Since the country as a whole saw a 9% swing to the Democrat, it’s just a small part of the country that moved toward McCain, obviously. Just 22% of counties, as the Times helpfully notes. But their geographical concentration is noteworthy, as apart from obvious bits in Arizona and Alaska, the candidates’ home states, most of the counties in question form a perfect arc in the Highland South, from Oklahoma eastwards to Tennessee and then upwards through the Appalachians.
Striking as the pattern is, however, it’s become fodder for some misinterpretation as it did the rounds on the blogs. Some of it may just be a matter of emphasis. Some of it, however, has to do with the way the differing racial demographic balances in red states cloak the true concentration of McCain switch voters.
In terms of general emphasis, I’d be a bit wary about impressions when these counties become dubbed “the McCain belt” — you’d almost think that these were the best counties for McCain, rather than just the ones that moved toward him most. For example, McCain won Alabama and Louisiana by about 20 points, a more ample margin than he got in Tennessee, Kentucky or West-Virginia. So what’s the real McCain Belt?
The more interesting point is about race. The NYT map showing the electoral shifts to McCain obviously does not take into account the role of race, it just maps the overall results. One thing, however, that distinguishes the Appalachians is that they have a very small black population. In the Deep South, on the other hand, you have some of the largest black minorities around. Those black populations turned out en masse for Obama — and so their extra votes for Obama effectively canceled out the shift to McCain among whites there.
Do Southern whites constitute the real McCain Belt?
Compare the Electoral Shifts map above, with its “McCain belt” stretching from the Oklahoma to the Appalachians, with this one:
This map shows, state by state, how much the white vote, taken separately, changed since 2004. It looks very different, doesn’t it?
The numbers are taken from the exit polls. Exit polls, of course, are still polls, and still have margins of errors; and when you measure the shift from one exit poll to the other, I presume those margins double. Nevertheless, they are based on an immensely larger sample than regular polls, and exit poll data gathered during election day are reweighed as the actual results come in to properly match the outcome.
What they show is that whites in much of the Deep South actually swung toward McCain more strongly than the populations of the Appalachians and Ozarks highlighted on the NYT’s Electoral Shifts map. They just don’t show up on the NYT map because their swing is canceled out by the mobilisation of their black neighbours by Obama.
Overall, the exit polls show, just about as many whites moved from Bush to Obama as from Kerry to McCain in states like Tennessee, Kentucky and West-Virginia, as well as Oklahoma. This may seem surprising, as those states form most of the core of the presumed “McCain belt” in the Electoral Shifts map; but remember that a rural county with just a few thousand voters may paint a swathe of the map red, while an urban county with manifold more voters may just be a blue dot. Apparently, in these states Bush voters moving to Obama in the (sub)urban counties canceled out the move of their Democratic peers to McCain in the larger, rural counties.
Meanwhile, the real “McCain whites” live in the Deep South. All four states where McCain won at least 3% more of the white voters than Bush did in 2004 are on the Mississippi or the Gulf, and in all four the white vote was already deeply Republican. These are states where you would have thought there was little still left to win for a Republican. In Alabama, 80% of whites already voted for Bush in 2004; but 88% of them voted for McCain now. In Mississippi, the Republican’s share of the white vote went from 85% to 88%. In Louisiana, Bush got 75% of the white vote, but McCain strongly upped that number still to 84%. The fourth state, Arkansas, stands apart a little because its white voters aren’t quite as overwhelmingly Republican, but they just became a little more so. McCain won 68% of the white vote there, when Bush had gotten 63%.
Revisiting the electoral map and what it says about the South
What does this mean? It may mean that the relief that Facing South‘s Chris Kromm appeared to feel that the McCain Belt was “clearly not,” actually, “the South”, but rather a kind of Appalachia-plus, was misplaced. There wasn’t any specific Appalachian swing toward McCain. Instead, there was a swing toward McCain among whites of the South and border states (with the striking exception of the mid-Atlantic states). It just mainly showed up on the map in Appalachia and a state like Oklahoma because the “whiter” demographic balance there allowed it to appear.
What that means in turn is that extensive analyses of what exactly in the Appalachians’ demographic and historical specificities may explain its bucking the trend and moving to McCain were premature. Looking at the NYT Electoral Shifts map, for example, Alex Massie delved into “the nature of the Appalachian and “Highland” vote”. The Scotch-Irish heritage, the ethnic self-identification as simply “American”, the military tradition. But again, the mostly homogenously white Appalachians did not swing to McCain any more than their white counterparts further South; they actually swung to McCain less.
This in turn brings the question of race as motive back to the fore. If it wasn’t something specific to the Appalachian culture that moved the white voters that switched to McCain, was it just because they couldn’t bear voting for a black man after all? Massie’s analysis was based on the sense that “one ought to be wary of presuming that race is the only reason a county might buck the national trend”; hence exploring other facets of Appalachian culture and demography that may be at work. But if the Appalachian vote turns out to merely be a paler echo of the shift to McCain seen among whites in the Deep South, many of those facets seem rendered irrelevant.
Some of Massie’s points remain valid. He notes, for example, that while “the percentage of .. veterans is, broadly speaking, fairly consistent across the states, the south is .. the only part of America in which the number of veterans as a percentage of the overall population is increasing.” Since veterans are more likely to vote for Republicans, and perhaps especially for a war hero like John McCain, this might be an additional explanation for his relatively good score in some locales. On the other hand, Massie proceeds to point out that people in rural counties are far more likely to have served, or know someone who served, in Iraq than their urban peers, and may therefore have been more likely to vote for McCain; yet the exit polls show that nationally, rural area voters swung to Obama in the same proportions as the national average.
The fissured South; Gulf states and Atlantic states on different paths
What the maps of the white vote and how it changed since 2004 show is not all just reinforcement of stereotypes about the racist white South, though. On TNR’s The Plank, Clay Risen had a point, even if he opted for the wrong examples.
Risen ran with the NYT Electoral Shifts map much in the same way as Kromm saw it. The “red splotches,” he noted, “center in eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and southern Louisiana; northern Alabama”; but meanwhile, “across the “Deep South”—South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, .. the map is almost entirely blue.” As the maps on this page show, much of this is simply a reflection of race; the map is almost entirely blue there because the extra black voters Obama mobilised outweighed the white voters moving toward McCain.
In that sense, Risen’s argument that the blue brush strokes there show that “broad swaths of the region look just like the rest of the country” is at least partially wrong. An increasingly racially polarised political landscape like that of Alabama and Mississippi, where whites rallied even more behind the Republican banner while the Democrat gained ground by even better mobilising the black vote, is not exactly what you found in the rest of the country. But that’s not the whole story. Because for other states in the South, he was right on point.
Risen wrote that what the map showed was not “some sort of static geographic-demographic bloc of racists,” but rather “a fissured and rapidly changing” South. And the fissured part certainly hits the mark. Because even as whites in Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas shifted further to the Republican candidate, those in the Mid- and South-Atlantic did the opposite. Four years ago, 73% of whites in North Carolina voted for Bush. This year, just 64% voted for McCain. Four years ago, 68% of whites in Virginia voted for Bush. This year, just 60% voted for McCain. Those are significant shifts. Four years ago, 78% of whites in South Carolina voted for Bush. This year, 73% did – still an overwhelming majority, but a 10% swing to Obama nevertheless. Whites in Georgia did not warm to Obama, but also weren’t chased any further into the McCain camp by him – or at least not on balance. (Some rural whites were, but must have been counterbalanced by urban whites moving to Obama.)
Developments thus appear to be going in opposite directions in the Atlantic South on the one hand, all the way down to South Carolina, and in the Highland and Gulf South on the other. Zooming in on the low-income white vote puts the Deep South as a whole in starker contrast again, however – but that’s for a different blog post.
What about the rest of the country? Obama’s popularity among the whites of “Greater New England”
One would almost forget that the map of the red and blue states of white America in this year’s elections is not just all about the South. There are impressive shifts elsewhere in the country.
Compare this year’s map with that of the 2004 elections. That map had practically no blue in it at all. There were just nine states in the US where a majority of whites voted for John Kerry, and in three of those they did so barely. Six of them were the states of New England. The other three were Hawaii, Minnesota and Washington. In not one state did Kerry get 60% of the white vote. The Democratic strongholds California, New York and Illinois showed up in pristine white, because the white vote there was exactly split. Every other state except for Iowa and Oregon glowed red to some degree or other.
This year the map is still, well, rather reddish in tone. After all, 55% of white voters opted for McCain. But the balance has shifted. Obama got the majority of the white vote in 19 states. He scored blowout wins among whites in Hawaii and Vermont, where he held McCain down to 31% or less, and led McCain by about 20 points in Oregon, Washington, Maine and Rhode Island. He won a majority of whites in Colorado and Michigan, and almost half the votes in Ohio and Montana.
Outside the South and the Appalachians, the only states where the white vote did not significantly shift to Obama were Alaska and Arizona — the Republican candidates’ homestates — and the neighbouring states New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. The states where whites swung most strongly toward Obama were the same as where the swing in the overall vote was largest: Hawaii and Indiana. (Who, a year ago, would have thought that the one mainland state of the United States where white voters would swing most strongly to Obama would be Indiana?)
The core of both Obama’s support and his gains compared to Kerry’s scores, however, lies in what has been described as “Greater New England”: see Elazar and Lind for history and Patashnik and Lind again for topical commentary from the primary season. See these listings:
|Top ten states where Obama received highest share of the white vote||Top ten states with largest swing among whites to Democrat between 2004 and 2008|
|1. Hawaii 70%
2. Vermont 68%
3. Oregon 59%
4. Maine 58%
-. Rhode Island 58%
6. Washington 57%
-. Massachusetts 57%
8. Wisconsin 54%
-. New Hampshire 54%
10. Minnesota 53%
-. Delaware 53%
I.e.: homestates (HI, De); New England proper (VT, ME, RI, MA, NH); “Greater New England” (WI, MN, WA, OR).
|1. Hawaii 27%
2. Indiana 22%
3. Vermont 19%
4. Delaware 18%
-. Oregon 18%
6. Colorado 17%
-. North Carolina 17%
8. North Dakota 15%
-. Virginia 15%
10. Michigan 14%
-. Utah 14%
-. Wisconsin 14%
I.e.: homestates (HI, DE); Mid-Atlantic (VA, NC); Indiana; “Greater New England” (VT, MI, WI, ND, CO, UT, OR).
The role of Greater New England in the overall election results is also nicely underscored in these two maps, also from the NYT, which map the overall lead of the candidates by percentage and by number of votes:
Finally, do also check out the NYT’s awesome Electoral Explorer, which allows you to zoom in on only those counties that meet a variety of demographic indicators of your choice.