Obama, McCain Fight To Win Southern Votes

The South has been a Republican stronghold for presidential candidates for decades, a trend Democrats hope to change this election year. But a new poll by Winthrop University in South Carolina suggests that southern voters may not be as quick to change as some Democrats hope. Scott Huffmon of Winthrop University and Andra Gillespie of Emory University in Georgia discuss presidential politics in the South.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

I'm Lynn Neary, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Michele Martin is away. Coming up, our Faith Matters segment looks at what questions didn't get asked at the recent faith forum for the presidential candidates. But first, it's time for our political chat. Today, we're talking about the impact the South may have on the presidential election. Despite the South's long-time status as a Republican stronghold, Democrats are hoping to put the South into play in this year's race for the White House. A new survey examining how voters in 11 Southern states are responding confirmed some long-held beliefs about Southern voters' commitment to the GOP, but also turned up some surprises.

Joining us to talk about this new poll by Winthrop ETV are Andra Gillespie, an assistant professor at Emory University, and Scott Huffmon, founder and director of the social and behavioral research laboratory at Winthrop University. He's responsible for the poll. Welcome to the program, both of you.

Dr. ANDRA GILLESPIE (Assistant Professor, Emory University): Thank you.

Mr. SCOTT HUFFMON (Founder, Social and Behavioral Research, Winthrop University): Thank you very much.

NEARY: Let's start with you, Mr. Huffmon. First of all, why is the South such an important region to focus on this election?

Mr. HUFFMON: Well, the South contains over 50 percent of the electoral college votes needed to win the presidency. If someone sweeps the South, they need only a little over 30 percent of the remaining electoral college votes. So very often, as we've gone through kind of a regional realignment, and I won't get into the realignment debates, as conservatives have begun sweeping the South, it is a Democratic strategy to have to crack the South if they want the presidency. And so if Barack Obama can pick up a couple of Southern states and keep John McCain from sweeping the South, that could be really important to his strategy.

NEARY: Now, before we get to the poll results, I wanted to ask you about something you did with this poll, which is, you divided the 11 states in the poll into two categories: The Deep South and the peripheral South. Why did you do that?

Mr. HUFFMON: I guess that goes back to my training. When I was getting my doctorate and focusing on Southern politics, it's just ingrained that you focus on the deep South and the peripheral South, and one of the main reasons is the areas of, where the former plantations were before the Civil War were also, after the Civil War, the areas with the highest concentrations of African-Americans. And those are the traditional Deep South states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. And the politics there are fundamentally different. So as we look at the demographics, you can see differences between the states labeled peripheral South in this poll, and think of Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, and the states of the deep South. So looking at this dichotomy, I just wanted to see if there were any differences between the regions, and in one or two places, there are.

NEARY: Well, let's look at the overall results because based on your poll, it seems like Barack Obama may have a pretty tough time making inroads in the South. What did you find out?

Mr. HUFFMON: Well, that's correct. And I think it has confirmed what everyone knew and, it's that a regional strategy is not going to work for Barack Obama. The South as a whole is leaning strongly towards McCain, so if Barack Obama wants to have the South play a role in his victory, it's going to be in picking up one or two key states and not getting the South as a whole. His strategy becomes preventing a sweep from John McCain, not in hoping to win the region.

NEARY: And remind me of the numbers. What's the lead again?

Mr. HUFFMON: Overall, it was - for all Southerners, it was McCain a little over 50 percent, Obama just at 35 percent.

NEARY: Now, one of the things that was surprising in this poll was the number of voters who said race was not a significant factor in their decision. 75 percent of African-Americans, 80 percent of whites. How do you gauge the credibility of that response?

Mr. HUFFMON: Well, we try and put it next to other responses about race and we did ask quite a few other questions and after the election, to be frank, I'll be digging a little deeper into that. I didn't want our results playing a huge role, but I think there's a little bit of social desirability going on people answering the way they think, the interviewer wants to hear them, but if we look in other areas, for example, we ask folks, think of your circle of friends. Do you think someone in your circle of friends would have a problem voting for an African-American candidate. Among the working class whites, nearly a third said, yeah, in my circle of friends, I think they'll have trouble voting for an African-American.

NEARY: Andrea Gillespie, you're an assistant professor of political science at Emory University, which is in Georgia, a deep South state according to this poll. Are voters there really beyond considering race? Do you think, even subconsciously?

Dr. GILLESPIE: I don't think anybody is past considering race subconsciously. And one of the things about, sort of, the subconscious internalizations of race is that they work because they're so subtle. So you don't even realize that you're making certain decisions based on certain subtle cues and prejudices that aren't necessarily at the surface. And so what we've seen happen in the last generation is that people don't overtly appeal to race anymore.

You can never have a George Wallace anymore, you know, stand on the steps and yell segregation yesterday, segregation today, segregation forever. But if you pick at, sort of, deep-seated stereotypes in the United States and apply them to Barack Obama and his family, it might actually have the same impact that it would have had if you had used the N-word in an election 60 years ago in the deep South. So, what I would be more concerned about is attaching certain types of negative stereotypes and racial codes to the Obama campaign.

So when he gets attacked for being too liberal and people try to associate him with people like Louis Farrakhan or Jeremiah Wright or people would try to associate him with tax and spend welfare policies that some people think don't privilege work and are negatively associated with African-Americans as it is, that could have the same insidious effect if left unchecked, as somebody sending out a lynch. Or burning a cross on the White House lawn to say that the Obamas wouldn't be welcomed there.

NEARY: Andra Gillespie, was there anything in this poll that really surprised you?

Dr. GILLESPIE: Can't say that much surprised me. One of the things that was very interesting was McCain's substantive advantage on every issue. I would have expected that to be a little bit closer. So it is very interesting, and I think it reinforces the idea that it's going to be very difficult to penetrate the South seeing that McCain has, you know, at least a 15-point advantage on every substantive issue. And one of the things that's also important is actually looking at some of the characteristics McCain and Obama are viewed as nearly equally empathetic and other types of things, but McCain has a leadership advantage. And that's going to be actually really important in the election.

People don't just want somebody who is right on the issue from their point of view, they want somebody who represents strong leadership. And if Southern voters or American voters in general don't view Barack Obama as a strong leader, it doesn't matter that he offers change. They might not want the change that he offers if they don't think that is backed up with good leadership.

NEARY: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm speaking with political science professors Andra Gillespie and Scott Huffmon, about what role the South may have on this year's presidential election. Scott Huffmon, what issues were important to voters that you polled in the South, and are they any different from issues that are important to people in the rest of the country?

Mr. HUFFMON: Substantively, they're not. The economy is the number one issue, Iraq is number two across several groups. Health care comes in into top four, price of gas is often third, it shifts for the deep South. Terrorism made it into the top four and that wasn't true for any of the other sub-groups. One of the few places were Barack Obama is either tied or a little ahead, at least in the peripheral South on an issue, is health care. And so that's one issue where McCain doesn't have the massive lead that he has elsewhere, but Dr. Gillespie pointed out, he's got a huge advantage in characteristics such as leadership and in trust, and for folks that aren't getting a lot of information, don't seek out a lot information about the candidates. It often comes down to that political affect, how you feel about somebody, and a lot of that is trust. So, Obama does need to work on getting a lot of these groups he hopes to win over to know him and to trust him if he hopes to make inroads.

NEARY: Andra, what about the evangelical vote that played an important role in the last election? What role do you think it's going to play this time particularly in south?

Dr. GILLESPIE: Well, it looks as though, McCain is going to be able to maintain an advantage among white evangelicals than the south. The question will be, will he be able to maintain the same margin as George W. Bush did in 2004. The early polls suggested there has been some erosion among white evangelicals, but I wouldn't expect Barack Obama to get 40 percent of the evangelical vote. I think, what's most important is how enthused are white evangelicals for John McCain as a candidate. If they lack enthusiasm, they will be less likely to volunteer, less likely to help mobilize people who are less likely to go out and vote. And those who are on the fence about certain types of issues, may actually sit out this particular election, even though most people say that they are going to vote. One of the things that's been interesting is that in the last week, John McCain had a strong showing at Saddleback Church on Saturday.

Barack Obama had to admit in front of the evangelical audience that he supported abortion rights and he supported civil unions, which probably won't go over with that constituency terribly well. But this is also within the last week where CNN made known that, you know, John McCain committed adultery. So, if you can put people at cross pressures, so that they're having doubts about John McCain's trustworthiness, that might actually be able to cause some erosion and the erosion that we would have expect would necessarily be a wholesale shift to Barack Obama, but it could cause people to volunteer less. And if there's anybody who's on the fence who was not a typical voter, that's the person who's going to be less likely to be convinced to be able to vote in this particular election.

NEARY: What about the youth vote which seems to be helping Barack Obama overall? Is that going to make any difference in the south?

Dr. GILLESPIE: In some places, it will make a difference in that you're going to see an increased turn out among young voters. But one of the things that's always struck me about looking at young voters this year, not just looking at the general election, but looking at the primary election, is that for the first time, we have the possibility of the young people actually voting in numbers that are proportional of their numbers in the general population. That's still not going to be able to make a difference in being able to get Barack Obama over the hump in the south, even though it's a wonderful story from a political participation standpoint.

NEARY: Scott Huffman, last word. You were saying that Barack Obama is going to have to focus on a few states. We know he's focused on Virginia. What other states might just possibly be in play for him?

Mr. HUFFMON: I think the major focus is going to be on Virginia, Florida, potentially North Carolina. And you know what? They may put a lot of folks on the ground, actually trying to win Georgia. I'm not sure it's reachable, but it is definitely going to be part of the strategy.

Dr. GILLESPIE: Well, as a person who lives in Georgia, who's from Virginia, as I say Virginia is definitely the most winnable state in the south. I'm actually somewhat doubtful that Georgia is going to end up moving to the red column in this particular election. One of the ironies is about the deep south is that the deep south has the largest concentration of African-American votes, but in national election there's also has the most racially polarized votes. So, because of that, you know, for every black person who comes out and vote from the Deep South, is going to be a white Republican, who's going to vote his or her party, not necessarily voting on racial lines and is going to vote national party identification. So, there are too many Republicans in this state to be able to offset it. Virginia had a history in the last, you know, a couple of gubernatorial elections cycles of electing Democrats who managed to do well in extremely conservative parts of the state like Southwest Virginia. And I think, that's the reason why that state might, in fact, be winnable regardless of whether or not Tim Kaine actually makes the ticket.

NEARY: Andra Gillispie is an assistant professor at Emory University. She joined us from Atlanta and Scott Huffmon is the director of the Winthrop, ETB Poll Initiative. Thank so much for joining us.

Dr. GILLESPIE: Thank you.

Mr. HUFFMON: Thank you.

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