Monday, December 8, 2008

Does rurality help explain Arkansas's lurch to the right?

When I first saw the county-level map (select “county leaders” in upper left corner) from the ’08 Presidential election, I could hardly take my eyes off that red blob that is Arkansas, the state of my birth, my upbringing, and still--to some extent--my identity. It is no less than the buckle of the McCain belt.

Seeing the map measuring which counties and states voted for McCain by higher margins than they voted for George W. Bush four years ago was worse still. Arkansas is the reddest state, having doubled the margin of victory it gave Bush in 2004. It is far more red across all counties and regions than Arizona or Alaska, homes to those headlining the Republican ticket.

Here is how the NYT characterized Arkansas’s vote:

In Arkansas, which had among the nation’s largest concentration of counties increasing their support for the Republican candidate over the 2004 vote, “there’s a clear indication that racial conservatism was a component of that shift away from the Democrat,” said Jay Barth, a political scientist in the state.

Indeed, somewhat ironically, the only blue parts of Arkansas on this latter map (the one showing political movement; not just which counties supported whom in ’08) are the parts that (1) are historically most Republican, and so had room to move left, particularly under the influence of newcomers to these amenity-rich counties; (2) the parts with significant numbers of African American voters, mostly in the Mississippi Delta; and (3) the most urban place in the state -- the center of the greatr Little Rock metropolitan area.

To say that I am disappointed that Arkansas appears to be the epicenter of places that rejected Obama, and which did so decisively, would be an understatement. What the 2008 Presidential vote says about the Arkansas electorate is further complicated by the fact that both U.S. Senators from Arkansas are Democrats, as are three of four members of its congressional delegation. Every constitutional office in the state, from Governor on down, is currently held by a Democrat. This across-the-board support for Democrats by Arkansans—with the notable exception of Obama—makes racism seem a force of some magnitude.

But I would like to think that racism was not the only reason Arkansas painted itself so red at the level of the Presidential election. In fact, other factors were surely at play. One of these may have been Arkansans’ enduring loyalty to Hillary Rodham Clinton. This would be ironic since many there reviled her for remaining Hillary Rodham and for other manifestations of her feminist politics (e.g., having a career!) when she first moved to the state and married Bill Clinton some 35 years ago. Maybe, in the end, Arkansans became fond of Hillary, a fondness that generated a stiff loyalty that couldn’t be transferred to that “other” Democrat.

Also relevant is the fact that Obama didn’t set up a single campaign office in Arkansas, the only state he altogether ignored. Read a post on the topic here. Some of the Daily Yonder analysis of the rural vote in the South and Appalachia suggests that Obama lost big in these states because he failed to show up and connect personally with the voters, which is what the voters there seek. (Of course, Obama did show up in some rural places in the South and Appalachia, but not many. Read here about his efforts to reach rural voters). Some Yonder writers claim that voters expect to have a personal connection with the candidate, like Douglas Wilder achieved in Appalachian Virginia in his race for governor several years ago. This phenomenon could explain why Arkansas voters are willing to support both Democrats and Republicans for local and state-wide office, where parties have shared power in recent decades. It doesn’t take a great effort to visit each of the 75 counties at least once, and to do a fair bit of pressing the flesh.

Or, maybe Arkansans has more than its share of bigots because the bad news doesn’t stop with the vote in the Presidential race. Arkansas is also home to a successful referendum that prohibits unmarried, co-habiting persons from adopting or fostering children. The referendum was aimed at would-be adoptive parents who are members of the LGBT community. You can read the New York Times coverage here, coverage linking the decision to Arkansas voters’ antipathy toward Obama. Here’s an excerpt from Robbie Brown’s November 9 story:

Many experts did not expect the measure to pass with Democrats nationwide flooding the polls to support Mr. Obama for president. Prominent politicians, including former President Bill Clinton and Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, publicly opposed the ban. Critics ran television advertisements of foster children pleading with voters not to make it harder for them to find families.

But conservatives mounted a grass-roots campaign, mainly through church groups, that framed the state’s case-by-case approach to adoption requests as an affront to traditional family values.

Brown's story also quotes Jay Barth, a professor political science at Hendrix College in Conway.

"I think white Arkansas Democrats felt cross-pressured in this race. . . . They didn't want to vote for what they viewed as Bush's third term, but they also couldn't bring themselves to vote for Barack Obama. . . . One response was just to bow out of voting, and their absence probably helped this [adoption qualification] proposal succeed."
This op-ed piece by Dan Savage also appeared in the New York Times and was one of the most emailed items on Nov. 12. Savage talks about how unfair the law is to members of the LGBT community, while also providing relevant data about the need for adoptive parents in Arkansas. He offers some hypotheticals to illustrate how dreadful the consequences of this new law are likely to be:

Right now, there are 3,700 other children across Arkansas in state custody; 1,000 of them are available for adoption. The overwhelming majority of these children have been abused, neglected or abandoned by their heterosexual parents.

Even before the law passed, the state estimated that it had only about a quarter of the foster parents it needed. Beginning on Jan. 1, a grandmother in Arkansas cohabitating with her opposite-sex partner because marrying might reduce their pension benefits is barred from taking in her own grandchild; a gay man living with his male partner cannot adopt his deceased sister’s children.

It is easy to attribute these election outcomes to rural voters, to the folks who are varyingly stereotyped as (1) uneducated, anti-government, and close-minded or (2) traditional, hard-working, salt-of-the earth types. In fact, attributes of rural societies are probably relevant to both outcomes – McCain’s landslide and the landslide to ban gay and lesbian families from adoption. After all, the initiative about adoption qualifications passed with 57% of the vote. An initiative to ban gay marriage passed in 2004.

As for the apparent antipathy of many Arkansans toward members of the LGBT community, a study of the 2004 election showed that gay marriage was a critical issue for rural voters in the race for the Presidency. The Daily Yonder wrote about it here, discussing the study by political scientist Peter Francia. Here’s an excerpt:

Francia runs through the usual list of differences: rural Americans attend church more often than urban residents; they are more likely to adopt a literal interpretation of the Bible; rural residents are more likely to be married, to own a gun and to own a house. Rural residents in 2004 were twice as likely as urban residents to support the Iraq War. But rural residents are also more culturally conservative — and in 2004, 71 percent of rural residents said their cultural disagreements with Democrat John Kerry led them to vote for George Bush.

The most important factor in how rural residents voted in 2004 was gay marriage, Francia found. More than tax cuts, guns or the Iraq War, opposition to gay marriage moved rural voters. Francia wrote, “In short, gay marriage appears to have been the dominant cultural issue of 2004 and was important in understanding the success of George W. Bush among rural voters."

So, does rurality explain these election outcomes in Arkansas? Is Arkansas so rural that Obama, not a social conservative (compared to Bush anyway) and not “one of them” (like the Clintons, especially Bill) hadn’t a chance? Was the adoption qualification initiative a done deal as soon as it hit the ballot?

Well, a story in the NYT earlier this year characterized Arkansas as twice as rural as the national average. (Read a related blog post here). In fact, 55 of Arkansas’s 75 counties meet the Office of Management and Budget’s definition of non-metropolitan, meaning the total population of each is under 100K, and no city in any of them has more than 50K. Those counties are home to 43.3% of the state’s population. Forty-six percent of the state’s residents live in places that meet the Census Bureau’s definition of rurality, i.e., places with fewer than 2,500 residents or open territory. Eighty-one percent live in places that have fewer than 50,000 residents.

Apart from these numerical thresholds, Arkansas may also fairly be seen as culturally rural. My guess is that most Arkansas natives who live in one of the state’s metropolitan areas are one, perhaps two generations removed from a more truly rural experience. Sixty-one percent of Arkansans were born in Arkansas (compared to 52% of Californians and just 41% of Coloradoans). As of 2000, 89% of Arkansas residents had been living in the state at least five years. (See Arkansas Census Facts here). In part because of the lack of population churn and in part because of the absence of a major city—a truly cosmopolitan place on the scale of Dallas or AtlantaArkansas has not been widely influenced by urban views and values.

Having said that, I am guessing that a higher percentage of voters in Little Rock, where an out LGBT community of some size exists, opposed the initiative. Obama did win Pulaski County (greater Little Rock), and it is one of just a couple of Arkansas counties that he carried by a wider margin than Kerry did in '04. Across the state, however, tolerance and acceptance of difference seem to be in relatively short supply. Maybe, as Obama expressed it in the big rural gaffe this spring, given the tough lives many of these rural folk have led (I’m paraphrasing), you can understand why they cling to a particular religious interpretation and antipathy to those who are not like them.

Urban, heterogeneous spaces and the change they tend to accommodate—along with the tolerance they ultimately engender—are not widely present in Arkansas, which may surely is a partial explanation of the state's conservatism. The state's historic lack of heterogeneity may be changing, however, as Arkansans have been pressed in the past decade to accommodate the ethnic and cultural differences represented by a huge influx of mostly Latina/o immigrants. (Read my academic analysis of the phenomenon here). Will this ultimately soften them up—and open them up to accepting difference, even celebrating it?

Homophobia and racism have been tempered in our nation in recent years, I believe, as more individuals have had opportunities to live and work among persons of color and LGBT folks. As Arkansans increasingly have those experiences, intolerance fed by ignorance will surely fade.

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