For a moment, ponder the unimaginable: Could Barack Obama win Mississippi this fall?
Bear with me – it’s nowhere near as implausible as you may think. I’m not saying it’s gonna happen, or that it’s even likely, or that the state is even a toss-up. But within the realm of possibility? Yes indeed.
Here’s my thinking: George Bush beat John Kerry here 59-40 in 2004. That’s a pretty good drubbing, no question about it. But blacks, who are exceptionally loyal Democratic voters, make up 36% of the population in Mississippi, the largest proportion of any state. And as we know, Barack Obama’s candidacy has sent black turnout through the roof.
For instance, exit polls show that black primary turnout spiked in South Carolina this year. African Americans made up 47% of the primary electorate in 2004 but 55% in 2008. (I use SC rather than MS as a basis for comparison because SC was contested in both years. Kerry had already wrapped up the nomination before MS voted in 2004, so those primary numbers are not meaningful.)
The black vote was also very heavy in the recent MS-01 special election (won by Democrat Travis Childers). What’s more, between the first round on April 22nd and the run-off on May 13th, turnout soared in counties with large black populations, in some instances doubling. Many people have cited not just Obama’s popularity as the cause for this outpouring of support, but the relentless GOP attacks on him as well – attacks which will surely continue, and continue to galvanize.
So what has to happen for an energized black electorate in Mississippi to make things competitive for Obama? Let’s take a look at the statewide exit polls from the 2004 general election:
Vote Bush Kerry
White (65%) 85% 14%
Black (34%) 10% 90%
Total 59% 40%
As you can see from the bottom line, when you multiply out the vote by race, you wind up with the exact final election day total, which says to me that these exit polls were quite accurate. Using these numbers as a baseline, here’s how Obama can get to victory:
Vote McCain Obama
White (60%) 80% 20%
Black (40%) 5% 95%
Total 50% 50%
Three things have to happen here - what I call the "ten, ten, ten" plan. First, the black share of the vote has to shoot up to 40%, pushing the white vote down to 60%. This would represent a shift of about ten points in the racial composition of the vote. Second, Obama has to run ten points better among blacks than Kerry did. And third, he also has to run ten points better among whites than Kerry did.
The question, of course, is whether all of these things actually can happen. As I explain above, there’s already ample reason to believe that black turnout will break all kinds of records. Similarly, with Republicans so utterly demoralized and their party all but shattered, I can definitely see the conservative white vote getting depressed. (Certainly, the GOP loss in MS-01 isn’t helping morale much.) Consequently, I think we're more likely than not to see a materially different black-white voting mix in MS on election day. Will it really shift ten points? Hard to say, as there isn't much precedent for a candidacy like Obama's, but I think it could.
The next question is, will blacks be even more loyal to Obama than they were to Kerry? This may in fact be the "easiest" part of the equation (not that any part is actually easy, though). If blacks in MS were voting for a northeastern white guy like Kerry at 90-10, then it’s surely plausible that they’ll support Obama in even greater numbers. After all, he’s the very guy who is driving African American turnout to such historic proportions.
It’s that third piece of the puzzle which is by far the most difficult. Whites in Mississippi were almost as hostile to Kerry as blacks were to Bush. I think it’s safe to say that Kerry was not exactly a great fit culturally for the South, at least as far as much of the white vote was concerned. But will Obama fare any better? As with blacks, he’d have to move the needle ten points in his favor among whites, but that is unquestionably the vastly greater challenge.
But I think it might - just might - be within the realm of possibility. In neighboring Alabama, for instance, Bush won whites in 2004 with the same margin Obama would need here, 80-19. And in 1996, Bill Clinton won 24% of the white vote in MS. Of course, Clinton was a Southerner, and as much as Kerry was a fish out of water here, he was, of course, white. For all we know, it's quite possible that Obama will do worse than Kerry did.
However, one piece of data is cause for a (very small) bit of optimism. A SurveyUSA poll of the race (the only one that I'm aware of so far) already shows Obama getting 20% of the white vote against McCain (who pulls "only" 74% of it). There may well be something of a Wilder Effect going on here - it's impossible to say. But it's a start. (The SUSA poll, incidentally, shows McCain with a 54-41 lead. But the racial balance is 65-33, and Obama wins the black vote by 83-13, which, per my thoughts above, I think is pessimistic.)
There's also the John McCain factor. Simply put, I’m not sure how well McCain will play in MS. The New Englander Bush strove mightily to portray himself as a son of the South – and with the press as willing lackeys, he succeeded. McCain can’t even pretend to pretend like George Bush did.
What’s more, McCain presents himself as the ultimate anti-pork crusader. But one man’s pork, of course, is another’s vitally important home-district project, beloved by constituents. And in few places is this view more prevalent in the deep South. In 2005, for example, Mississippi ranked second in terms of federal tax dollars spent in the state vs. revenue collected from the state. I’m not in favor of policies such as these, but that’s beside the point: The fact is, running against earmarks, while popular with an element of the wingnut base, is not going to be well-received in the Magnolia State.
I’ll also add in an extra factor that goes to Democratic turnout more generally, rather than any of these individual factors. Rep.-elect Childers in MS-01 will have to fight a rough re-election battle. Meanwhile, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who is running for the Senate, is waging the most competitive Democratic senate campaign MS has seen in some time. These two candidates will undoubtedly help drive up Democratic turnout, just as Childers did earlier this week. And on a related note, the Obama campaign is moving forward with what looks like a monster voter registration drive throughout the country, including a focus in the South.
Obviously, it’s very easy to play with numbers and tweak them just enough to come out the way you’d like. And as I said at the start of this piece, the scenario I’m outlining is not at all likely. But what’s important is that it’s possible, thanks to the unusual candidate, state demographics, and election year we have before us. And the mere fact that you can even talk about Obama competing in MS with a straight face means that the GOP will be sweating bullets. If they have to spend so much as a dollar here to defend the state, that alone will constitute victory.