Michael Levy: The Myth That Race Didn’t Matter

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Michael Levy is Britannica's Executive Editor. He received a bachelor’s degree (1991) in political science from the University of North Carolina and a doctorate (1996) in international relations and comparative politics from the University of Kentucky.] With Barack Obama carrying some 53% of the vote in Tuesday’s election and winning states that Republicans traditionally have won–particularly Virginia and Indiana (where the GOP had won every election since LBJ’s sweep in 1964)–a narrative has formed that there was no Bradley Effect in the election and that race mattered little. Indeed, some commentators have argued that there was a Reverse Bradley Effect and that being African American was an advantage for Obama.

It is true that Obama performed extraordinarily well compared to other northern Democrats–the last three Democratic presidents (LBJ, Carter, and Clinton) have hailed from the South and southerner Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, while northern Democrats (Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, and Kerry) have failed to make any inroads into the Republican heartlands. And, Obama’s percentage of the vote was higher than any Democrat since LBJ in 1964.

In self-congratulatory mode, commentators have been pointing to the exit polls and the maps, showing that Obama did very well compared to other Democrats across the board–among Latinos, African Americans, and even among whites (he won 43% of the white vote according to the exit polls, compared to John Kerry’s 41%).

But, buried in the results is the fact that while Obama did very well across the country, making almost all areas of the country bluer than they had been in 2004, in some areas he performed worse–much worse–than John Kerry.

The New York Times map on voting shifts (click on voting shifts on the left) shows this bluer America, but look closely and you’ll see that some areas got not only a little redder but a lot redder.

For example:

  • Bradley (how appropriate a name, yes?) county, Arkansas: Kerry +5% over Bush; Obama lost by 14% (a net of -19% for Obama)
  • Cameron parish, Louisiana: Kerry -39%; Obama -65% (-26% net for Obama)
  • Humphreys county, Tennessee: Kerry +16%; Obama -3% (-19% for Obama)
  • Knott county, Kentucky: Kerry +28; Obama -8% (-36% net for Obama)
  • Pushmataha county, Oklahoma: Kerry -19%; Obama -43% (-24% net for Obama)

There are other examples as well where Obama underperformed Kerry, primarily centered from West Virginia southwest, though there were a few pockets in Arizona (to be expected), Idaho, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming.

Thus, though Obama improved by about 4 to 5% nationally over Kerry’s total, there are locales where Obama underperformed–badly–versus Kerry.

This is not to say that the country hasn’t made great strides and that Obama’s victory doesn’t represent a great step forward in racial reconciliation, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that race didn’t matter. It did matter–just not everywhere.

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