Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rural voters in the mid-South and Appalachia further marginalized themselves in '08 vote

Well before reading Adam Nossiter's story in today's New York Times about the waning influence of Southern voters, I was struck by the weight of the mid-South's redness on this map, which appeared in Saturday's paper. Indeed, I was positively weighed down by it. The map shows which counties were "more blue" and which were "more red" in last week's Presidential election--more red or blue, that is, in comparison to the '04 contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Most of the counties that migrated right/red were in the mid-South and Appalachia.

Nossiter's story about this map, dateline Vernon, Alabama, population 2,143, takes up the relevance of rurality to this electoral phenomenon. After all, the South is disproportionately rural. While 20% of the nation's populace live in rural areas, about 40% of those rural dwellers are in the South. Nossiter writes of the "rural red swatch" of the South, "where buck heads and rifles hang on the wall." Here are some excerpts:
By voting so emphatically for Senator John McCain over Mr. Obama — supporting him in some areas in even greater numbers than they did President Bush — voters from Texas to South Carolina and Kentucky may have marginalized their region for some time to come, political experts say. The region’s absence from Mr. Obama’s winning formula means it “is becoming distinctly less important,” said Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University. “The South has moved from being the center of the political universe to being an outside player in presidential politics.”
Nossiter notes that the Southern counties that supported McCain to a greater degree than they supported Bush four years ago tend to be poorer, whiter and to feature lower education levels. He also notes that less than a third of Southern whites voted for Obama, whereas the national number was 43%. Nossiter thus suggests race as a "strong subtext" in Vernon and demographically similar counties.

Nossiter's story features a number of other quotes from Vernon residents, comments that evince racism, intolerance, and fear. One was from a woman who suggested that an Obama presidency would result in more aggression from blacks; she also said that the idea of a black man "over me" as President bothered her.

I can only trust that the quotes included in the story are a fair representation of the people Nossiter interviewed.

In any event, the graphic that accompanies the story is also stunning in relation to the rural-urban axis. (See the graphic here). It shows that 225 counties moved to the right by 10% or more, compared to the 2004 Presidential race. The average population density of those counties was 42 persons/square mile, while the population density of the counties that moved blue-ward by 10% or more (compared to 2004) had an average population density of 120/square mile. Generally, the more sparsely populated a county, the more decisively it moved into the red camp.

Among the many things that sadden me about the story is that it portends not only the further marginalization of rural voters, it likely also will mean the further marginalization of the legitimate needs of this population. I heard on NPR this week that Obama plans to establish an Office of Urban Policy . . . which suggests that rural residents will remain a forgotten fifth of our populace.

NB As of the writing of this post, Adam Nossiter's story has been the most emailed story on the Times website for several hours.

Comment posted on 18 Nov. It seems worth noting that Pickens County, Alabama, for which Vernon is the county seat, has voted Republican in every Presidential race since at least 1992, which is as far as the Times interactive feature goes back. This is in spite of the fact that it is surrounded by counties that voted for the Democratic ticket in 1992 and 1996, a few of which also voted Democratic in '00 and '04. Needless to say, this makes Obama's race seem less relevant to the '08 outcome in Pickens County.

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