Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Could Barack Obama increase African-American turnout to the point that he would win normally Republican Southern states? I looked at that question a few weeks ago with regard to Georgia and concluded that, even with the candidacy of Bob Barr (a former Georgia Republican congressman running as a Libertarian), the answer was probably not. A commenter, Sims2798, dissented:
Yes, Obama can win Georgia. Blacks will be a much higher percent of the electorate than they were in 2004.
When 30% of a state's electorate is blacks who vote for Obama, he must win 29% of everybody else to win that state:
Blacks for Obama (30%): 0%, 100%
Everybody else (70%): 71%, 29%
When 35% of a state's electorate is blacks who vote for Obama, he must win 24% of everybody else to win that state:
Blacks for Obama (35%): 0%, 100%
Everybody else (65%): 76%, 24%
That comment got me wondering what exactly it would take for Obama to win Georgia.
Sims' math is right, if a bit simplistic. Obama won't take 100% of the black vote (there are some black Republicans after all).
But, as I suggested in my previous post, let's say that Obama takes 92% of the black vote and blacks are 30% of the electorate (African Americans were 30% of voters in the Georgia presidential primaries this year).
Furthermore, let's says that 5% of the electorate identifies neither as black nor white (meaning they are Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans, etc.) and that Obama takes 60% of the vote from that group. That's not unrealistic, given that Hispanics usually vote Democratic.
Forget the Barr candidacy for a moment. Obama would need only 30% of the white vote to push his total to 50.1%. If Barr takes votes from McCain, he needs less than that.
That is pretty amazing when you think about it. Georgia is a solid red state, but for Obama to win it he only needs 3 in 10 white voters to support him.
That's not impossible. Al Gore actually won 35% of the white vote in Georgia in 2000 according to exit polls. He lost the state badly because blacks only represented 19% of the electorate.
But is it likely that Obama can replicate Gore's performance with white voters and expand black turnout? No. John Kerry only won 23% of the white vote in 2004.
That's the baseline I used in my first round of calculations, which showed Obama coming up short. The number of Southern whites who vote Democratic in presidential elections out of tradition (rather than ideological compatibility) has been dwindling for decades and has probably dwindled even more over the past eight years.
The real lesson here is not that Georgia is likely to be competitive, but that the difference between a Democratic state and Republican state is far smaller than pundits commonly acknowledge. Switch 5% of Kerry's votes to Bush in California in 2004 and the president wins the state. Switch 10% of Bush's Mississippi vote to Kerry and the Massachusetts senator wins. That's worth considering the next time you hear someone talking about "red" and "blue."
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