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The Mind Of The South, Part Ii

A few weeks ago I blogged about a county-by-county national map in the New York Times showing that large sections of the South, particularly the Deep South, had voted further to the left this election than the last (though the Times took it to show the opposite, and to be fair the Mid-South--Tennessee and Arkansas, mostly--tilted further right). My conclusion was that the South, far from being left behind, actually looked more like the rest of the country.

A few people countered by saying that the bluish hue of Alabama, Mississippi, and other states was due almost completely to higher minority turnout. A fair point, though I don’t know what that ultimately means for my argument--after all, southern blacks are southerners, too. But the point is taken: Biracial coalitions supposedly cohered in the rest of the country, while racial division defined the South.

However, a new analysis by two MIT political scientists in the Boston Review shows that, in fact, Obama’s win was not at all the result of biracial coalitions, but almost wholly the result of an outpouring of minority voters:

The percentage of blacks voting for the Democratic presidential candidate rose from 88 percent in 2004 to 95 percent in 2008; the percentage of Hispanics voting for the Democrats rose from 56 percent in 2004 to 67 percent in 2008--swings of 7 and 11 percent. White voters, the largest racial group, increased their support of the Democratic candidate by just 2 percentage points, from 41 percent for Kerry to 43 percent for Obama. … had Blacks and Hispanics voted Democratic in 2008 at the rates they had in 2004 while whites cast 43 percent of their vote for Obama, McCain would have won.

In other words, much of the rest of the country, like those Alabama and Mississippi counties, saw a significant increase in racially polarized voting. “Racial polarization in American voting patterns (the difference between black support for Democrats and white support for Democrats) was the highest it has been since the 1984 election,” the authors, Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart III, conclude.

They are careful to note that such results shouldn’t diminish this historic moment: Ironically, Obama’s “victory, built upon the highest degree of racial polarization seen in many years, has ushered in a period of racial good feelings.” But it does mean that, in fact, Alabama may look more like the rest of America than the rest of America likes to admit.

--Clay Risen