Red State Blue State

Further digestion, and indigestion, of last week's results

I don't know about you, but I suffered an unsettling spell, last Tuesday night, watching the returns. At about 9:30, when most of the states of the Eastern and Central time zones had been called, but the West was still blank, the news networks' were all showing what looked like a Civil War map. It was right eerie: the North was colored in blue, as it is in Golden Book histories of the Civil War. The old slave states of the South were in red. They were exactly the ones that were rejecting the first black presidential nominee.

Even among friends, my old rocking chair had never felt quite so uncomfortable. It was an historic election, watched more than any in history, and I was somehow hoping I was the only one noticing the pronounced North vs. South dynamic. By the end of the evening, mercifully, it was less obvious. Close races in Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina tilted toward Obama. Several western states—Oklahoma, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Alaska—were stronger for McCain than the most of the South was.

However, on a national radio show the next day, Bill Moyers, a thoughtful man and a Texan, ascribed the South's rejection of Obama to racism. The country's moving ahead, he said, but the South is still mired in its past.

Somehow he didn't assume votes against Obama were votes for McCain, war hero, conservative, old guy, senator of long experience. Many white Southerners favored McCain for the same reasons they favored Bush over honkies Gore and Kerry: he was a Republican. The breakdown of the South last Tuesday differed little from the percentage splits in 2004. Tennessee's split was nearly identical to '04's. Tennessee is only 16 percent black, but voted 42 percent for Obama.

I have to admit, though, that just after I groused about the national media's eagerness to blame Southern racism, during the primaries, I was disabused of my naivete about my home region by a few correspondents. One older man told me, in so many words, that he wasn't racist or anything but he wouldn't vote for a black man. I'd like to think there aren't many of those, and the numbers last week, which imply a year-to-year stasis, may actually prove it—contrary to Moyers' interpretation. However, considering the South's black electorate was reportedly more energized than in 2004, their surge may only have served to counter a minority of energized white racists.

In general, the Red State / Blue State breakdown is fascinating, provocative, and extremely annoying. It obscures complexity. I have erstwhile friends in the urban North who've been yanking my chain about Hicksville, Tennessee ever since the term "red state" was coined, maybe eight years ago. Certain Northerners seem anxious about traveling in "red states," as if they're crossing into the Lynching Belt or something. Call them silly, but they might not have been surprised to drive down Kingston Pike on Homecoming Saturday and see a sight I've never seen in almost half a century in Tennessee—Klansmen in hoods. They were protesting the election of a black candidate.

Unfair as it may seem to good-hearted, generous, and educated Republicans like the ones I grew up with, the "red state" now has a reputation as uneducated, selfish, hateful, prejudiced, backward. Some blame the GOP strategizing of Atwater and Rove for deliberately courting that electorate without trying to enlighten it.

Perversely, I think, red-state redlining colors perceptions far beyond the electoral-vote maps it was invented to illuminate. I've read reports that high-tech companies, in choosing places to relocate or invest, tend to avoid the red states—though the tech boom in North Carolina has been cited, speculatively I think, as one reason why that state is now Carolina blue. It wasn't that long ago—the early '90s, if memory serves—when they were re-electing Sen. Jesse Helms and we were re-electing Sen. Al Gore.

Perhaps respecting our red-state designation, Obama and Biden hardly campaigned in Tennessee. Even though Tennessee's Obama supporters had been told for months that Tennessee was already a Republican lock, and even though more than one million Tennessee voters favored Obama last Tuesday. There are more Obama supporters in Tennessee, for example, than there are in Connecticut, Oregon, and several other blue states. They just don't show up on the red-blue map.

And, as we showed in a feature story a few weeks ago, the most accurate predictor of an American voter's political preferences may be his neighborhood's population density. For the last few elections, at least, the closer you live to your neighbors, the more likely you are to be a Democrat; the farther away, the more likely you are to be Republican.

It seems bizarre, but analysts note a remarkable direct correlation between population density and Democratic tendencies on a county-to-county level across the nation. Most Southerners are rural or suburban, therefore Republican, seemingly regardless of either nominee's actual hue.

As we noted, the density principle seemed to hold true even on the precinct level within nominally Republican Knox County. It's consistent in spite of other factors, even income, education, race. In 2008, the density effect appears to be at least as potent as it was in 2004. Knox County is still Republican, if a couple of points less so than it was in 2004. And the city within it, which is still the most densely populated part of the county, is still Democratic. A few precincts in the city which were Republican in '04, like the one on UT campus and Belle Morris on Washington Pike in Northeast Knoxville, tilted Democratic last week. West Knoxville's Pond Gap, a dead-heat tie in '04, was a decisive Democratic precinct in '08.

The countryside doesn't appear to be budging much. No precinct outside of city limits favored Obama. As usual, Gap Creek in Southeast Knox County was the reddest, with an 80 percent share for McCain. If they dislike Obama, they seemed to feel exactly the same about John Kerry in '04.

Anyway, Bill, as a Southerner yourself, you ought to know better. It's more complicated than that.