GOP resurgent—in states with lots of whites.

The reason why Scott Brown’s victory can’t be blamed on low minority turnout is that Massachusetts has very few minority voters. The same true in the lion’s share of the states in which Republicans are now leading their senate races.

Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart III’s analysis in the Boston Review of Scott Brown’s Massachusetts victory contains many sobering points for Democrats.  Brown gained on Obama everywhere in the state, and while minority turnout was low, a huge turnout wouldn’t have beaten him.  But in tracing why a huge turnout wouldn’t have beaten him, the authors note in passing that a huge proportion of towns in the state are more than 95 percent white, and there are even a lot of precincts in Boston more than 85 percent white.  This got me thinking: is Massachusetts an unusually white state?

Answer: hell yes.  Non-Hispanic whites make up 79.2% of Massachusetts’ population, as opposed to 65.6% in the country as a whole.

I then wondered: are most of the eight states in which Republicans are predicting takeovers of Democratic Senate seats—namely Nevada, Colorado, Arkansas, North Dakota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Delaware—also abnormally white?  Answer: also yes.  Illinois has about the same racial composition as the country as a whole (having way more Latinos than most people think).  Nevada is less white than the rest of the country.  But the other six states are substantially whiter than the rest of the country.  Five of those—all but Colorado—are at least ten percentage points whiter than the country.

Two points.  First, the President’s attempt to re-energize his base could succeed and still not save Democrats in these particular states.  Second: Harry Reid’s attempts to save his seat by appealing to Latinos through immigration reform have aroused a lot of attention and not a little Republican outrage.  So why haven’t many “mainstream” political commentators pointed out that these other senate races could go Republican on the crest of an unrepresentative wave of white voters?  Now, I realize that being white means that what one thinks and how one votes by definition have nothing to do with race.  But still.

By the way: the state with the highest percentage of nonwhites is, of course, Hawaii.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

6 thoughts on “GOP resurgent—in states with lots of whites.”

  1. One might want to consider how this analysis plays out in the House. It isn't a pretty story for Democrats.

  2. One might also look at this as, the Democratic party only holding on where there are unrepresentative numbers of non-white voters. It being inevitable, after all, that if Republicans are doing well in states with below average numbers of minorities, that the Democratic party is doing well in states with above average numbers of minorities. That's the only way the two sets of states could combine to produce the average, after all…

    Why does the departure from average only count against you if it's a departure in one direction? Because it's tacitly assumed that minorities' voting paterns are the baseline from which things are to be judged?

    Well, Ok, I can see why a Democrat would like the percentage of the vote Democrats get from blacks to be the default state, from which all departures are suspicious. I just don't see why that's reasonable.

  3. Er, before people on both sides rush to make too much of this analysis, I'd just point out that in 2008 Obama's two best states were the whitest and the non-whitest states in the US. Vermont, which is >96% white and according to the census bureau is the most rural state in the US, went overwhelmingly for Obama — he won a majority of the two-party vote in 242 of the state's 246 towns.

    Of the ten whitest states, Obama won four (VT, NH, ME, IA). Of the ten least-white states, Obama ALSO won four (HI, VA, NY, MD).

    He won ten of the twenty whitest states, AND ten of the twenty least-white states.

    You can't crudely take the racial composition of a state and draw any conclusion about whether that state is pro- or anti-Obama. The picture is much more complicated than that.

  4. Massachusetts is significantly whiter than the country as a whole, but that does not mean that it's an unusually white state. In fact, it is only the 23rd whitest state (according to the 2000 census), which means its level of whiteness is very usual. Nonwhites are heavily concentrated in a few of the most populous states (like California and Texas), so even though the country as a whole (as of 2000) is only 69% white, the median state is 79% white. On the list of states from whitest to least white, the 9 states that you mentioned rank 23 (MA), 40 (NV), 29 (CO), 26 (AR), 6 (ND), 35 (IL), 17 (PA), 15 (IN), and 31 (DE), for an average rank of 24.7. If you correlated a state's percentage white with some measure of Obama's struggles (perhaps the change between his share of the vote and his current approval rating) I bet the correlation would be small.

    Notes: by "white" I mean Non-Hispanic white, and I'm using the 2000 census numbers because that was the first site I found which lists every state on one page.

  5. @Vince: Yeah, I thought of that after I posted. But this points to a larger point about the senate: its wild unproportionality means that there are a lot of states where certain constituency groups that are a large proportion of the population nationwide have a very small influence. We're essentially handing over the Senate to the median state, which is 80 percent white, as opposed to the median voter, who lives in a country that's 67% white (using updated figures). I know we can't change that, given that the constitution makes equal representation in the Senate unamendable. But we can say, and repeat, that this makes shifts in control of the Senate an indication of who gets to legislate but not of who represents "the country."

    @J: I agree that the nonwhite composition of a state doesn't determine whether it supports Obama or not. (The usual social science finding is that states with *really* low percentages of nonwhites also display little racial resentment–there being no threat and no occasion.) But it does determine whether certain constituencies that are a substantial chunk of the national population get a proportional say in whether it supports Obama. And this matters because national policies don't effect every group equally. It's precisely because I'd like a color-blind society that I'd prefer a representation system that makes sure members of every group feel they're getting a proper voice.

  6. I'm not sure what the point of the last paragraph was. Is your point that Obama and the Dems should give up now and save themselves the expense? That Reid should change his message to suit the wants of Nevada's white voters? Perhaps Reid can make a big "clucking" deal about health care?

    Or is the point that you are surprised wingnuts still hyperventilate daily on television and radio about "taking back OUR America?"

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