Revisited: Can Artur Davis Win White Voters?

I wrote more than a 1,000 words the other week about whether U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, an African-American Democrat, can win enough white votes to ...
by | March 30, 2009

I wrote more than a 1,000 words the other week about whether U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, an African-American Democrat, can win enough white votes to be elected governor of Alabama in 2010, but, if you can believe it, I barely scratched the surface.

A quick recap: Natalie Davis, a Birmingham-Southern political scientist, argues that Barack Obama took 17% of the white vote in Alabama, not the 10% that exit polling reported. If that's true, it reflects somewhat positively on Davis' chances for winning, although he'd need to do much better with white voters to win the election.

This discussion of Alabama needs to be placed in a broader context. So, take a look at how exit polls say that John Kerry and Obama performed with white voters in the South in the past two elections:

State                Kerry White %    Obama White %    Change

Alabama                 19%                    10%                    -9

Arkansas                36%                    30%                    -6

Florida                    42%                    42%                     0

Georgia                   23%                   23%                     0

Louisiana                23%                   14%                     -9

Mississippi             14%                    11%                     -3

North Carolina         27%                    35%                     8

South Carolina        22%                     26%                    4

Tennessee              34%                    34%                    0

Texas                     25%                    26%                    1

Virginia                   32%                    39%                    7

This data could probably be interpreted in a dozen ways, some favorable to Davis, some not. I have a bunch of different thoughts.

-Obama gained among white voters compared to Kerry in four states and lost ground in four states, with three staying the same. So, it's pretty clear that Southern whites didn't overwhelmingly reject Obama because of his race. Most didn't vote for him for the same reason most didn't vote for Kerry: He's a Democrat. As I argued the other day, Davis' party affiliation may be his biggest problem.

-The places where Obama did best among whites were the states he contested. The Southern states Obama tried to win were Virginia, North Carolina and Florida (he won all three). He also briefly tried to put Georgia in play. In Florida and Georgia he stayed even with Kerry with whites, while in North Carolina and Virginia he gained dramatically.

That result plays into one of the Davis campaign's arguments. Their case: The Obama campaign didn't try to win Alabama, so his showing there shouldn't count against Davis' chances. Then again, the Obama campaign chose which states to pursue for a reason. They knew white voters in Virginia and Florida were more persuadable than those in Alabama and Mississippi.

-Of course, since I wrote an entire post questioning whether the Alabama election poll was accurate, it's important not to take this data at face value, without a bit of reflection. Let's start with the subject of that post. These numbers do provide a tad bit of circumstantial evidence that the exit poll underestimated Obama's white support in Alabama. The drop in white support from Kerry to Obama in Alabama was only matched by the drop in Louisiana. Are we to believe that white Alabamans (and Louisianans) are different than their counterparts in other Southern states or is the more likely explanation that the exit poll was off?

-On the other hand, it's somewhat striking that the four states where Obama did worse with whites than Kerry are all in a contiguous area of the Deep South. If that means these states aren't entirely comfortable voting for an African-American, that's trouble for Davis.

But, another reasonable explanation is that these states are trending hardest against Democrats in presidential voting, as conservative Democrats continue to become Republicans. That's also somewhat bad for Davis, though Southern states that won't vote for a Democratic presidential nominee still often elect Democrats for lower offices. Furthermore, it's worth considering that maybe Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas were subject to a Reverse Bradley Effect because (as Natalie Davis theorizes for Alabama), they're places where some whites are reluctant to admit to supporting a black candidate to exit pollsters.

-Finally (and I hope this won't render irrelevent everything I've already written), Barack Obama was just one candidate. Though it's easy to forget, he did face an opponent in the election. Perhaps, Alabama's voters simply liked John McCain better or agreed with him on more of the issues. Davis will campaign on different issues against a different opponent -- I certainly wouldn't rule him out, just because of his race.

Georgia's attorney general and labor commissioner are both black Democrats who have been elected statewide three times. The head of Texas' powerful Railroad Commission is a black Republican who also has won three statewide elections. So, the right African-American can win in the South.

Plus, the Davis campaign notes that Obama's polling hasn't been so bad in Alabama. In the immediate afterglow of his inauguration, SurveyUSA showed 48% of Alabamans approving of the job he was doing, with 45% disapproving. Just last week, SurveyUSA showed Obama's Alabama approval even at 47%-47%. If half of Alabamans approve of the job a black president is doing, isn't it reasonable to think that at least half of Alabamans would be willing to elect a black governor? 

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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