The media bloviators have lapped up the silliness from the Clinton campaign that Obama has a "white working class problem." If that were true, we would see the evidence in the election results, not just in the exit polls. I am not sanguine about racism in America; racism permeates almost every facet of life around Detroit, my home town. There are some voters who will never vote for a black man. But most of those people who can not get beyond a person's race are Republicans. I don't believe Obama "transcends race," whatever that's supposed to mean. Few people don't notice or think about his race. But most swing voters who could succumb to veiled racial appeals are comfortable voting for this particular Black man.
Furthermore, many of the voters currently supporting Hillary Clinton simply prefer her to Obama. Until the campaign turned more contentious over the last few months, most Clinton voters, according to the polls, were fine with supporting Obama. I don't think recent polls that show Clinton supporters unwilling to support Obama are a good indicator of how they will vote in November. They won't vote for McCain, and--especially if Hillary Clinton eventually rediscovers some graciousness--they will support Obama.
I don't believe Obama has a significant "race problem." However, I do believe that he has and will continue to have a problem with some white voters who are clustered mostly in Appalachia. To see if there was a good visual representation, I enlisted the help of Kossack meng bomin, who's created a bunch of really excellent maps (such as this outstanding series of maps showing the evolution of the Democratic primary vote from January through last week).
First, let's define how we'll be using "Appalachia." In the 1960's, one out of three people in Appalachia lived poverty, per capita income was 23% lower than the national average, and the region was rapidly losing population. In 1963 the Appalachian Regional Commission was created by Congress and President Kennedy to address the problems in the area highlighted in the map. Since the 1960's counties near Atlanta, Huntsville AL and Pittsburgh have become wealthier much more developed. But much of the region remains well below national standards in most measures of economic and social well-being.
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.
First, to see if Obama has a "problem" with white voters, it's worth looking at where he's performed well. Not surprisingly, he's done well in Northern cities and southern rural areas with very large populations of African Americans. But his appeal is not limited to African-Americans and higher-income, highly-educated whites.
[click on maps for greater detail]
Counties where Obama won at least 55% of the vote in green:
Counties where Obama won at least 65% of the vote in green:
As we see, his appeal is not geographically limited.
But if he has a serious "problem" with white voters, we would see it in numerous regions across the country. We do not see that. So where do we see Clinton doing well, and where do we see her racking up big wins?
Counties where Clinton won at least 55% of the vote in purple:
Counties where Clinton won at least 65% of the vote in purple:
Clinton, like Obama, has posted solid wins (55% and up) in many different parts of the country. But her biggest wins--the places where she beat Obama by margins of 2 to 1 or better--have come almost exclusively in Appalachia or in areas originally settled by Appalachian migrants that remain relatively homogeneous compared to the rest of the country.
How do these results track with the distribution of people based on religious affiliation? Let me be clear: I am NOT suggesting that there are religious reasons to explain why Clinton or Obama might do better or worse with Baptists or Methodists. Rather, religious affiliation, which is highly correlated with the denominational affiliation of one's parents, is an indicator of family background and regional heritage. I am not making a strong causal argument, but noting the correlation between the heritage of voters in Appalachia who have been favoring Clinton by margins of better than 2 to 1 and those voting the same way in other parts of the country:
Distribution of Baptists by county:
Distribution of Methodists by county:
What does this mean going forward? Well, first of all, there's no reason to expect that Obama will do well in West Virginia or Kentucky. The counties surrounding both states have gone overwhelmingly for Clinton, so it would be extraordinary if Clinton didn't post big wins in both states.
The other thing demonstrated by these maps is a strong regional distribution of white voters seemingly disinclined to vote for Obama. I'll try to address some of the reasons for this tendency in future posts. In the meantime, it would be great if pundits and politicos would recognize and acknowledge that race doesn't appear to have been much of a hindrance for Obama in the Democratic primaries, except, it appears, in Appalachia and in some regions where descendants of Appalachian migrants settled, such as the Ozarks, Oklahoma, and some isolated rural communities on the Plains. Obama doesn't appear to have much of a problem with white voters. But it seems quite likely Appalachia has a bit of an Obama problem.