Deep South states reject black president

Before Election Day, there was widespread suspicion that enough white voters would balk at voting for an African-American candidate for president that the polls would be proved wrong.

It didn’t turn out that way.

Barack Obama won a convincing popular and electoral victory Tuesday. According to exit polls, the Illinois senator did better with white voters than the past two Democratic nominees, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Vice President Al Gore, did in the 2004 and 2000 elections.

However, while Obama was improving on Kerry’s performance in most states — including such critical battlegrounds as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and North Carolina — he did worse than Kerry among white voters in a handful of states — especially Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

In Louisiana, Obama’s support among white voters was 10 percentage points below what Kerry received. That was the sharpest decline in white support for the Democratic ticket from 2004 to 2008 recorded in any state.

In other words, white voters in a select group of Deep South states proved especially resistant to Obama’s appeal, said David Bositis, an analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, who looked at the racial patterns in the 2008 exit polls. The exit polls, as in the past, were conducted by Edison/Mitofsky for a consortium of news agencies

“They are moving contrary to the rest of the country,” said Bositis, who said Obama’s race — and the historic pattern of racially polarized voting in these states — seemed the most obvious reason. How else, he said, to explain how Kerry, a quintessential East Coast liberal, did better than Obama with white voters in those states on his way to losing the presidency, than Obama did on his way to winning it?

Nationally, Obama won 43 percent of the white vote: 46 percent of white women and 41 percent of white men. He ran 12 percentage points behind Republican John McCain with white voters.

That’s the same percentage gap by which Gore trailed George W. Bush in the virtual dead-heat election of 2000, but it’s five points smaller than the Democrats’ deficit four years ago.

Obama built his margin by increasing the turnout and percentage of the African-American vote and dramatically improving the party’s performance with Hispanic voters. Obama also did especially well with younger and more-educated voters.

But according to demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution in Washington, none of that diminishes how important it was for Obama to shave some points off the usual Republican advantage with white voters. And, Frey said, Obama’s big gains were among white men — usually the toughest constituency for Democrats — where he narrowed the Democratic deficit by nine percentage points.

“A lot of Obama’s demographic gains were among Hispanics, young people, the college-educated, but there is also this big chunk of white men who are almost always very reliably Republican,” Frey said. “To some degree they went to him this time — not because of any transformational change, but because of the economy.”

Charles Gallagher, a sociologist at La Salle University in Philadelphia who has studied white racial attitudes, seconded Frey’s assessment.

“What did it take for white America to want to vote for a black man? If there had not been this collapse of the economy, there would have been no Barack Obama mandate,” Gallagher said. “Class trumped race.”

White support in N.O.

Except perhaps, Frey said, in the Deep South states where Obama fared so poorly. Those states, Frey said, remain the most culturally Southern and demographically unchanged.

Frey said that 57 percent of all eligible voters in Louisiana and 60 percent in Alabama are Southern-born white people. In North Carolina, the percentage is only a little more than half, and in Virginia, Georgia and Florida, it’s well below half.

Obama won North Carolina with 35 percent of the white vote. He won Virginia with 39 percent of the white vote. And he won Florida with 42 percent of the white vote. He lost Georgia with 23 percent of the white vote.

Meanwhile, in every state with a large enough black population to create an adequate sample for exit polling, Obama’s black support was above 90 percent, often in the high 90s. In Alabama and Mississippi, Obama won 98 percent of the black vote; in Louisiana, he won 94 percent.

In Orleans Parish, according to a precinct analysis by University of New Orleans political scientist Edward Chervenak, white voters behaved very differently than white voters in the rest of the state.

According to the national exit polls, Obama won 14 percent of the white vote in Louisiana — 10 percentage points less than Kerry won in 2004 — and a lower percentage than in any state except Alabama, where Obama carried 10 percent of the white vote, and Mississippi, where he won 11 percent.

But Chervenak found that even though Kerry lost the whitest precincts in Orleans Parish in 2004 by three percentage points, Obama won those same precincts by a sliver of a percent.

Chervenak said the outcome comported with his own yard-sign observations.

Even in predominantly white neighborhoods, he said, “I saw far more Obama signs than McCain signs.”

Lower appeal elsewhere

Outside New Orleans, the white vote in Louisiana took on very different contours.

“Once you get above I-12, voters are just culturally conservative Christians who just have a natural affinity for the Republican Party,” Chervenak said. And, he said, “certainly race is a consideration. The fact is that a liberal African-American candidate is just not attractive to a large number of white voters in Louisiana.”

And unlike the results in many states, younger white voters in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were hardly more likely to vote for Obama than older white voters.

By contrast, in North Carolina, Obama won 35 percent of the white vote overall, but 56 percent of white voters age 18 to 29. Similarly, in Indiana, he won 45 percent of the white vote and 57 percent of younger white voters.

Steve Suitts, vice president of the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, said Tuesday’s results reveal again “how distinct the South is from the nation as a whole in racial voting.”

“We’re just maybe a few generations behind the rest of the country in understanding what (the Rev. Martin Luther) King told us about it’s not the color of your skin, but the content of your character,” said Suitts, who supported Obama.

Jonathan Tilove can be reached at or 202.383.7827.