My esteemed colleague Chris Orr can't figure out how the vote in Mississippi can have been so racially polarized, yet only 31 percent of Mississippians said race was "important" in their choice. Of course, Chris implicitly provides the answer by asking the question. Because of Mississippi's history of racial conflict, one assumes that some of its white voters were not being candid with the poll-takers--or, perhaps, with themselves. My rule of thumb has been to double the percentage. But Chris's observation is important in another respect.
If you look at other states where Obama did poorly among whites, you find almost identical percentages who voted for Clinton and who said race was a factor in their decision. That suggests that in these states, too, race was not a marginal, but an important factor in Obama doing poorly among these voters.
Let's compare Ohio and Mississippi. In Mississippi, 11.2 percent of Clinton voters said race was important; in Ohio, 11.4 percent. In Mississippi, Clinton won white Democrats by 70 to 23 percent and white independents by 55 to 40 percent. In Ohio, she won white Democrats by 70 to 27 percent and white independents by 53 to 45 percent. In Mississippi, 30 percent of voters said they would not be satisfied if Obama were the nominee; in Ohio, 32 percent said so. (I'm adding those who would only be satisfied with Clinton to those who would satisfied with neither.) In other words, the anti-Obama white vote in Mississippi and Ohio looks remarkably similar. And the same results show up in other states like New Jersey. In New Jersey, where Clinton won white Democrats by 70 to 28 percent, 10 percent of Clinton and Edwards voters said race was an important factor in their decision; and 32 percent of these voters said they would not be satisfied if Obama were the nominee.
I know that when I noted these percentage in the Ohio and New Jersey exit polls, some readers thought I was reading too much into them. Wasn't NAFTA decisive in Ohio? But the similarity between the polling in Mississippi to that in Ohio and New Jersey suggests that outside of the upper tier of what demographers sometimes call "greater New England" (from Maine to Minnesota and over to Washington), Obama has continuing problem in winning over white voters.
--John B. Judis