Skip to main content
For Obama, Will Familiarity Erode Contempt?

I’ve been playing around with the same exit poll data that’s Charles Franklin has been looking at, on the percentage of the white vote received in different states by John Kerry and Barack Obama, respectively. Franklin has identified a correlation between the percentage of voters in a given state who are black and the share of the white vote that Obama received: essentially, the blacker the state was, the fewer whites voted for Obama. This correlation existed for John Kerry too, although it’s a bit stronger for Obama:

My focus is on the South in particular, because it’s not clear if there are especially meaningful patterns in this data outside of that region; Obama had no trouble winning over white voters in relatively black non-southern states like Michigan, New York, or Maryland. There are fifteen states that I define as Southern. Obama drew a larger percentage of the white vote than John Kerry in five of them, a smaller share (sometimes substantially smaller) in four of them, and got exactly the same percentage in the other six.

The driving factor in determining how Obama performed vis-à-vis John Kerry, however, appears as though it might not be race, but rather how much Obama camaigned in a given state. According to the New York Times candidate tracker, Obama campaigned extensively — by which I mean, he actually went out and spent a lot of time on the ground — in 6 of the 15 Southern states. These include Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Missouri (where Obama campaigned extensively in the general election cycle), as well as South Carolina and Texas (where Obama campaigned extensively in the primaries). The other nine Southern states, Obama did not have more than a couple of apperances in, and several he did not visit at all.

In the states where Obama campaigned extensively, he drew, on average, 3.3 percent more of the white vote than John Kerry did. In the states where he did not campaign significantly, on the other hand, his percentage of the white vote dropped by an average of 3.3 percent. The differences are highly statistically significant.

Now, the difficulty here is that we don’t know which way to draw the causal arrow. Did Obama campaign more in states like North Carolina because he knew that white voters would be more receptive to him there — or, were white voters more receptive to Obama because he campaigned more in North Carolina?

I think the most telling example might be South Carolina, which Obama did not campaign in because of any particular demographic strengths, but merely because it happened to enjoy an early position on the primary calendar. In that state, Obama did 4 points better than John Kerry among white voters, even though he didn’t really visit the state after January. (Interestingly, it did not seem to matter whether Obama visited a state during the primary cycle or the general election; merely spending time on the ground there was what counted.)

The question, really, is to what extent Barack Obama’s underperformance among certain types of white voters was a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re not asking for somebody’s vote, you’re usually not going to get it. This may be particularly true if you’re a black person and the voter is a rural Southern white person.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the voter is hellbent against you. I tend to think that racism runs along a spectrum. Many, or perhaps even most white voters are a little bit racist, but for relatively few is race a complete deal-breaker. Many of them will vote for you if you’re actively soliciting their votes, and they’ve had time to grow comfortable with you. If Obama had been targeting Georgia’s or West Virgina’s electoral votes as actively as he sought Florida’s or North Carolina’s, might he have won them? I don’t know, but I think he’d have had a fighting chance.

There are some analogies here to homophobia, in that people become much more tolerant of gay people once a friend, workmate or family member has come out to them. The idea that you can say, Greg is gay, but guess what — I know Greg, and he’s a pretty good dude is very powerful. Prejudice is global, but tolerance is local.

This also has some interesting implications for 2012, in that by virtue of having become President, Obama will have spent four years in the living room of every American. That doesn’t mean that Obama is going to win, say, Alabama. But it might mean that if he has a successful presidency, he can become — well — everybody’s imaginary hip black friend, at least up to a point. I hope I’m not being too optimistic by suggesting that our country will be a bit less racist four years from now than it is today. If so, then states like Georgia and West Virginia should be given careful attention once Obama begins to plot out his 2012 strategy.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.