Sunday, March 2, 2008

Can a Black Presidential Candidate Win West Virginia in 2008?

Since Obama became the clear favorite to win the Democratic nomination, I've been pondering whether he has any real shot, if he does become the nominee, to win West Virginia in the general election, and have come to the conclusion that he does not.  This isn't because of Obama's liberal voting record; I think the right sort of liberal -- one who could shift attention from his specific stances on gun control, gay marriage, and regulation of the coal industry to a message of economic populism --could put West Virginia in play.  Rather, and there's no gentle or positive way to put this, I believe a much higher proportion of West Virginia voters than voters nationally simply will not, even in 2008, vote for a black presidential candidate -- Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal -- and that block of voters would rule out an Obama win in this state under any realistic scenario for the development of the presidential race this fall.

For any who believe that West Virginia voters are more enlightened than I do, I'd love to see some arguments to that effect in the comments (and indeed, would love to be convinced by such arguments).  I've also set up a poll, in the sidebar, to see how many readers agree and disagree with my assessment.


Alex said...


You've asked for argument from the other side, but, in fact, I don't think you've sufficiently made the case for your belief.

What reasons do you have to think that voters will ignore traditional political/ideological reasons and vote simply because they don't want a member of a a certain race to win?

The intuition cannot survive empirically. Do you know of a single person who has said "I won't vote for Obama because he's black."

Naturally, you say, people would not admit to such a sentiment. But then why attribute to them something they are unwilling to say themselves?

Or, say you do know of such people. How many do you know? 10? 100? 10,000? How many would it take to change the outcome of a state vote, and why assume that their frequency is greater in one state than another?

Now, I don't think Obama will win the state, but only because the state has become much more socially conservative (even the democrats are pro-life).

Brian said...


You are right that I didn't really attempt to make an argument to support my conclusion before soliciting feedback (call that an exercise of blogger's discretion). Indeed, I don't think a really powerful argument --meaning, in this context, a strong empirical argument-- can be made as to whether or not the WV electorate is especially racist. However, to an extent that an express argument can be made from the facts we know about our state's electorate, I think those facts on balance support rather than undermine my intuition.

First, West Virginia has a dearth of black voters and of black public officials. That suggests that many white voters in the state have less exposure to blacks than typical white voters nationally, which I would hypothesize (reasonably, I think) tends to lead to a higher prevalence of racist attitudes. The latter fact may also be indirect evidence of unusually racist voting patterns among the West Virginia electorate.

Second, one cannot deny that the West Virginia electorate, taken as a whole, is less educated that is typical. If memory serves, in many empirical studies lack of education has been correlated with a higher incidence of racist attitudes.

Third, and finally, I would hypothesize that there is a relationship between the prevalence of populist (ie. economically progressive and socially conservative)attitudes and a higher incidence of racist attitudes. The West Virginia electorate may contain a higher proportion of populists than any other state (they typically identify themselves as conservative Democrats).

I don't think any of these facts taken individually strongly supports my current view. Indeed, as I alluded to above I doubt that all of them taken together constitute any kind of definitive empirical proof for my view. However, they do provide some support for my intuition.

Obama can't plausibly win West Virginia without running strongly among populist Democrats, and, my political intuition tells me that racial attitudes among that group are not as advanced as you believe or as I would like to believe.


Alex said...


My continued objections are merely in the spirit of academic exercise and I trust they will be taken in that manner. I'm sure we share the same hopes about the voting public.

This debate turns largely on empirical studies to which I do not have ready access. Without that access, I am prepared to accept some of your empirical assertions but not others.

I don't know the proportion of black voters in WV and I don't know the proportion of black public officials. I'm prepared to agree that WV's respective proportions are less than most states, more than some. However, it doesn't follow from that that West Virginians have less exposure to African Americans in general; or, more directly, that their lack of exposure creates racist attitudes. There are two missing premises: 1) smaller % of African American public officials = less exposure to African Americans and 2) less exposure to a racial group = prevalence of racist attitudes.
The former premise is questionable when one considers that exposure to members of racial groups can come in many ways, not just through voters or public officials.

The latter premise become plausible only on the very assumptions about the group of voters that we are debating. Why should there be anything but a racial tabula rasa?

Next, I don't know about the state's education level. Again, however, I am willing to accept that it is in the lower part of the state rankings. Yet, the tolerance benefits that come from education are not, one presumes, established by comparative ranking, but by an objective measure of the education a person actually receives. In other words, you don't have to be a PhD to avoid being a racist -- you can learn that lesson in junior high. If so, then even if WV ranks low among the states, what education there is in WV may reach that threshold at which racial tolerance can blossom. I would need some data to make this point stronger.

Finally, with regard to populism and racism, I am again at a loss. I don't know precisely what you mean by populism, and I don't know what percentage of the state is populist. Edwards's class based populism -- if he was a populist -- didn't strike me as racial. (Though it was nearly as venomous). Therefore, I am not prepared to identify American populism with racial policies and cannot accept your argument on this point.

There's more to be said, but there is no pressure for us to say it here. I almost didn't respond at all, but then I read about the extraordinary life of William F. Buckley who would have written this post twice as well in half the time and I felt obligated to do something.

On a totally unrelated note:

(censor as you see fit)

Brian said...


I'm quite glad that you did respond. After reading your reply and giving it a bit of consideration, I'm forced to admit that the quasi-argument I offered doesn't really stand up very well to thoughtful analysis. (Indeed, in retrospect I probably even pushed the limited empirical claims I made too far).

With that being said, my intuition still tells me what it tells me. Perhaps I've (irrationally) internalized too many negative stereotypes about West Virginians. Or perhaps my intuition will be shown to be correct this November even though I can't now make a good empirical argument for it. Or perhaps Obama will blow the nomination race and we'll be having a discussion in the near future about whether West Virginians are ready to vote for a female presidential candidate.

As for being inspired/shamed by the accomplishments and goodness of W.F.B., I'm sure a lot of us have been thinking such things in the past week. I know I have.

By the way, enjoyed the video; very noirish in some way. (I wish I had half of W.F.B.'s powers of description.)