Obama in 2008? Race and the Electoral Map

09/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Early indicators suggest 2008 should be a very good year for Democrats. By any measure, Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, should be president in 2009. Voters have a strong preference for change. They are extremely dissatisfied with America's present course. President Bush's approval numbers are at record lows.

The economy is experiencing a housing bubble burst and oil price increases leading to more general economic decline and insecurity. Most Americans are uncertain to downright angry about America's foreign policy situation. Add to this that Americans tend to support regime change after several years of one party rule. All of these indicators point to an Obama victory.

Not so fast. While Americans are ripe for a Democratic president, they are not so sure of Obama. For example, 51% of Americans said they wanted a Democrat elected president in 2008 with only 35% preferring a Republican according to a June 2008 national news poll. Yet trail heat polls that match Obama against McCain consistently show a much tighter race.

It could be that McCain is more appealing than today's average Republican. He has a long history of being a maverick or independent-minded Republican. He also has the benefit of not being a member of the unpopular Bush administration.

McCain's appeal might explain some of what's going on. But Obama's racial identity probably explains more.

Obama is the first racial minority to capture a major party nomination. He is half white and half black. This proved to be an issue with working class white Democrats in the Democratic primary. While he won the votes of liberal, educated whites and black Americans, working class whites were more resistant to his candidacy. Exit polls indicated that some Democrats voted for Hillary Clinton for explicitly racial reasons. There are likely to be many others who were interviewed and shared this sentiment but were unwilling to admit to it.

It was Obama's capacity to carry blacks and educated, liberal whites that brought him victory. Democrats from the past who appealed to educated, liberal whites, such as Gary Hart in 1984 and Paul Tsongas in 1992, did not win black voters and thus did not win their party's nomination. In this way, Obama is a very different sort of Democrat.

He transitions into the general election with a different core coalition from past Democratic nominees. While most working class, white Democrats will vote Democratic this year, some will not and for racial reasons. It's hard to know how many that will be but with a tightly divided electorate, Obama's campaign needs to consider how to make-up this vote loss. An obvious answer: increase turnout among blacks.

Two things conspire to make this turnout strategy unhelpful, a state-based electoral system and the current population distribution of black Americans in the American states.

Consider that, in a tight race, Obama has a good chance of carrying only one of the five states with the largest proportion of blacks (Maryland -- 28% black). He has a good chance of carrying only two of the top ten states in this category (Maryland and Delaware -- 19% black).

Even if blacks vote in record numbers in most of the other states in this category (Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee), Obama is unlikely to win a single electoral vote from them. Only Virginia may prove to be a swing state.

Why? These tend to be poor states. In our book, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, Andrew Gelman and coauthors find that there are real and counterintuitive differences between how people vote in rich versus poor states. Income is a more important predictor of the vote in poor states than in rich states and the differences are most stark for richer voters. Additionally, income and values bias richer voters in the same direction in poor states (toward voting Republican) while they are countervailing influences for richer folks in rich states.

So in poor states, white, richer folks are highly motivated to vote Republican to satisfy both pocketbook and values concerns. This helps to keep these states reliably in the Republican column even with high concentrations of blacks.

Obama's campaign will have to look to young Americans, disaffected independents, other nonwhites and western voters (who see their values shared by Obama) to make-up for likely deficits among working class Democrats.

The role that race plays in this election will tell us a lot about America. Some of it will be hard to spot but some of it will be easy. We can expect some people to be very explicit about their prejudices in exit polls. Democratic voters who don't turn out or vote Republican and the mismatch between the polls and Obama's performance on Election Day will give us some sense of underlying racists sentiments that people don't admit to.

Joseph Bafumi is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College and is a co-author of the forthcoming book,
Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State.