Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

What's the Matter with Arkansas? Symbolic Racism and 2008 Presidential Candidate Support

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

What's the Matter with Arkansas? Symbolic Racism and 2008 Presidential Candidate Support

Article excerpt

The 2008 presidential election was historic in many ways, not only because an African American was the Democratic Party nominee but also because of the surge in Democratic votes across the nation. The Barack Obama candidacy provides the first opportunity for scholars to examine the impact of an African American nominee on the national ticket and the accompanying success of the Democratic Party--even in parts of the solidly Republican South. Two days after the 2008 presidential election, the New York Times published a map of "Election Shifts" in its special coverage of postelection analysis. The map showed substantial net Democratic gains in popular vote totals in nearly all 50 states. The Democrats successfully broke up the Republican stronghold in the South by campaigning actively and registering new voters in Southern states such as Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida.

Despite the Democratic surge throughout the country, and despite the existence of targeted campaign efforts in the South, the only areas in which Democrats experienced net losses were in Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Consequently, we chose to examine the effects of the Obama candidacy on candidate support in the two Southern states of Arkansas and Georgia. Despite their common outcome--a victory for the Republican presidential candidate--these two states were characterized by distinct pre-election conditions, creating a unique opportunity to examine the influence of race, and symbolic racism more specifically, in the 2008 presidential election.

The 2008 Contest in Arkansas

In 2004, George W. Bush received 54.3% of the statewide vote in Arkansas, while John Kerry received 44.6%. In 2008, John McCain increased the margin of victory substantially, receiving 58.8 % of Arkansas votes, with Barack Obama receiving only 38.9 %. Many commentators have argued that Obama and the Democratic Party lost ground in Arkansas because of the lack of an intense campaign effort in the state. Despite the fact that Democrat and native son Bill Clinton carried the state in both 1992 and 1996, Obama did not include Arkansas in his Southern strategy. Neither Obama, nor vice presidential running mate Senator Joe Biden, visited the state during the entire campaign season. (1)

Regardless, there are substantial reasons why the Obama campaign might have considered placing Arkansas more centrally in their campaign agenda. For example, Arkansas, unlike Georgia and most other Southern states, has not seen the Republican realignment that occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s trickle down to the state level (Blair and Barth 2005). Currently, Arkansas is the only Southern state that has a Democratic governor, two Democratic U.S. senators, three of four Democratic U.S. congressmen, and an overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature (at nearly 73%). Specifically, the 100-member Arkansas General Assembly ranks ninth in terms of the widest Democratic majorities held in all state houses. (2)

On the other hand, the campaign environment in Arkansas was distinct because of the potential for a "Clinton backlash" in the general election. The state of Arkansas gave Senator Hillary Clinton her greatest margin of victory (40.80%) over Obama during the Democratic primary held on Super Tuesday. In Arkansas's open primary system, some 80,000 more Arkansans opted to participate in the selection of the Democratic presidential nominee, potentially signaling a heightened interest in the Democratic ticket. Thus, a backlash from disappointed Clinton voters might help account for McCain's substantial victory in the general election and Obama's decision not to spend time or resources in the state.

The 2008 Contest in Georgia

At the presidential level, Republican candidates are secure in Georgia, having won the state nearly every year from 1964 to 2008, with the exceptions of Georgia governor Jimmy Carter's initial presidential run in 1976 and reelection effort in 1980, and again in 1992, when Southerner Bill Clinton carried the state. …

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