The politics of race are simpler than we pretend: Some people are racist, and candidates need their votes to win. Which is why Senate candidates Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky made one smart strategic decision early in their careers: being born white.
This conversation, which many Americans avoid when possible, was raised this week by New York's Jonathan Chait. Chait pointed out a bit of a hiccup in how the media was reporting the appearance of former president Bill Clinton on the campaign trail on behalf of Lundergan Grimes. Clinton is more popular than President Obama in Kentucky (and in many other places) thanks in part to having been out of office for a while, making him a more effective advocate for Democratic candidates than Obama.
But as Chait noted, Obama was unpopular in Kentucky even before he took office. Chait has a version of a New York Times comparison of the vote in 2004 for John Kerry and the 2008 vote for Obama in his post. It looks something like this.
The darker the state in the map above, the more strongly it preferred Kerry to Obama between the two elections. Arizona and Massachusetts are darker than other states because Kerry got a boost in his home state and because Sen. John McCain's home state voted more heavily against Obama than Kerry. Arkansas is very dark in part because of the hotly contested primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton. But it also lies along that line of states from West Virginia, through Kentucky, out to Oklahoma that opposed Obama more fervently than they did Kerry. For some reason.
There's plenty of anecdotal explanation for the difference. In 2008, the Daily Show ran a famous segment following the Democratic primary in West Virginia, at the northeastern corner of that line of states and which Hillary Clinton won by a steep margin over Obama. One state resident put her concern bluntly: Obama was of "the other race," and that scared her.
Likewise Kentucky. Chait points to a Politico article from last year discussing the race between Lundergan Grimes and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "We are still a racist state, I hate to admit it. Anything you can connect to Barack Obama is a winning thing for us," a Republican strategist in the state said. Which is certainly in part why Lundergan Grimes welcomes Bill Clinton's help but would decline Obama's. "I speak for myself. I don't need any other surrogate to do that," she told MSNBC when asked about having Obama campaign for her. But Clinton? "I was elated when he called and said he wanted to make this race his top priority."
In Louisiana, NPR's Ailsa Chang ran into a voter who's being asked whether or not he'll vote for Mary Landrieu's reelection in November. The voter, Beau Broussard, doesn't like Obamacare. At the 2:23 mark, there's this.
Broussard has all kinds of problems with the law itself — that it's wrong to force people to buy insurance, that it will make businesses hire less. But there's something else that bothers him: The law is the signature achievement of a man Broussard never wanted to see become president.
"I don't vote for black people, lady," he says. "No, ma'am. I don't vote for black people. They got their place, I got my place. That's the way I was raised."
Landrieu, being white, had a shot at Broussard's vote. ("But he insists that he might still have voted for her this November if she hadn't supported the Affordable Care Act, because he acknowledges Landrieu has helped the people of her state tremendously since she became a senator in 1997," NPR reports.) And, presumably, she still has a shot at getting the votes of some other racists in the state. Refer back to that map at the top of this post, and notice Louisiana. It, too, found John Kerry far more palatable — for some reason! — than Barack Obama.
Last week, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann told a reporter that Obama was only elected president thanks to white guilt. "I think there was a cachet about having an African-American president because of guilt," she said, then lamenting that "people don’t hold guilt for a woman." Salon did an effective job debunking that argument on the data.
But on a state-by-state level, Obama's race was probably more of a liability in 2008. The map of states that John McCain that year shows that same little spur as the map at the top of the page, a little pointer to the Appalachian Mountains. And for senators running in those states, not being Obama is probably advantageous for more reasons than just the president's policy decisions.