Supplying a Little Political Science for Charles Blow

Charles Blow:

Obama won the lowest percentage of the white vote in the state with the highest percentage of black voters. That state was the ever-reliable Mississippi, where Romney made his famous “I like grits” comment. Thirty-six percent of the voters in Mississippi are black. Obama won a mere 10 percent of the white vote there.
Conversely, Obama won one of his highest percentages of white voters in the state with the fewest minority voters: Maine. Ninety-five percent of Maine’s voters were white, and 57 percent of them voted for Obama. That ties with one other state for the highest percent of whites voting for Obama: Massachusetts, where 86 percent of the voters are white.
In fact, Obama won the white vote only in states with small minority voting populations. The others Obama won were Iowa (93 percent white), New Hampshire (93 percent white), Oregon (88 percent white), Connecticut (79 percent white) and Washington State (76 percent white).
This is quite a curious phenomenon.

Curious, maybe.  But not surprising.  That the political behavior of whites depends on the size of the surrounding population of blacks has been well-known in political science for more than 60 years—at least since 1949, when political scientist V.O. Key wrote his magisterial Southern Politics in State and Nation.

Key found that the behavior of Southern whites in the so-called “black belt” was distinctive: in these areas where blacks made up a larger fraction of the population, whites were particularly focused on maintaining their own political power.  This notion became known as “racial threat.”  Eric Oliver summarizes the theory as it developed after Key:

…superordinate groups become more racially hostile as the size of a proximate subordinate group increases, which putatively threatens the former’s economic and social privilege.

To be clear, my point is not that the dynamics of the Jim Crow South obtain today.  Nor am I suggesting that opposition to Obama is solely about racial hostility—although racial hostility does appear to play a role.

Rather, my point is simply that some familiarity with the political science canon would have helped Blow make sense of these data.

12 Responses to Supplying a Little Political Science for Charles Blow

  1. Andrew Gelman November 11, 2012 at 10:56 pm #

    But the pattern is not universal. Obama didn’t do so well in North Dakota (90% white) or Idaho (94% white), for example.

  2. MikeM November 11, 2012 at 11:30 pm #

    Blow based his column on exit polls; in states where a significant fraction voted early or by mail, his conclusions may not hold.

  3. Brice D. L. Acree November 11, 2012 at 11:41 pm #


    The point, however, is that the phenomenon has been well documented, even (read: especially) using data other than exit polls. The better question, perhaps, is the one Andrew mentioned above.

  4. Molly OW November 12, 2012 at 10:28 am #

    This is a phenomenon that has been discussed in social anthropology for half a century at least, as well – when members of a group are in the minority, or when there are clear boundaries rather than clines (continuous variation) between competing groups, members tend to make more public expressions of their group membership. Not only is it more important to express your own group membership when faced with a competing group, it’s actually these boundaries that define group identities (see Barth 1969). Maybe whites in majority white states with few minorities don’t have any contrast to their whiteness, and so it’s not a primary factor in their group identity. Perhaps North Dakotans and Idahoans are comparing themselves with neighboring Canadians, who overwhelmingly support Obama.

    • Neon Vincent November 13, 2012 at 4:01 pm #

      “Perhaps North Dakotans and Idahoans are comparing themselves with neighboring Canadians,”

      Or the Native Americans in their midst, who compose the second largest racial group in both states, although there are more Latinos (an ethnic group, not a racial one) than Native Americans in Idaho.

  5. LFC November 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    How much of the white vote did Obama win in Maryland?

  6. Jay Livingston November 13, 2012 at 8:46 am #

    The small-minority states Blow mentions, except for Iowa, are Northeast or Pacific. The ones Andrew mentions are more heartland. So maybe the difference has more to do with ideas about government rather than ideas about Blacks.

  7. Eric November 13, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

    I like Blow’s end of this one. The fact that it’s been discussed for 50 years by sociologists and political scientists doesn’t mean it’s not a curious phenomenon.

    • John Sides November 13, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

      Whether it’s curious or not isn’t the issue. The issue is that Blow doesn’t seem to have a sense of why this curious pattern might emerge, even though it’s been well-documented for more than 60 years.

  8. JasonM November 13, 2012 at 6:18 pm #

    As Steve Sailer likes to point out, northern whites, and especially Yankees in places like Vermont and Portland with vanishingly few blacks or Latinos, like to vote at the national level for ethnic minorities, the better to luxuriate in their moral superiority over their benighted redneck white nemeses in the South.

    But if you look closer to home, the behavior of northern white voters reflects much the same antipathy to black governance that we see in the south. Simply put: what do liberal big-city northern whites do after they get a taste of a black mayor?

    New York (Dinkins): vote republican for five elections in a row (Giuliani, Bloomberg)
    Detroit (Coleman Young): white flight — see Ed Glaeser
    DC (Marion Barry): federal takeover
    Chicago (Harold Washington): no more black mayors


    • dannyH February 6, 2013 at 7:06 pm #

      Damn Straight, those Massholes got rid of P Deval as soon as they could… didn’t they?

  9. johne February 6, 2013 at 2:30 pm #

    Right, the Southern nemesis always looms large in the minds of all those people in Vermont and Oregon (or is it Maine?).