Gov. Blunt: Claim that Missouri voters were racist is 'abhorrent' | St. Louis Public Radio

Gov. Blunt: Claim that Missouri voters were racist is 'abhorrent'

Nov 5, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 5, 2008 - The suggestions that Democrat Jay Nixon got more Missouri votes than Barack Obama on Tuesday because of racism drew a spirited objection Thursday from Gov. Matt Blunt and alternative explanations from other political observers.

The race explantion was advanced on Wednesday by St. Louis University political scientist Ken Warren, who conducted an exit poll for the Beacon. Noting that Obama got more votes in the St. Louis area than Claire McCaskill did in her Senate race in 2006 but failed to add enough outstate votes to defeat John McCain, Warren cited what he called "a redneck vote in the rural areas."

He said people tend to vote for candidates who are like them, and the overwhelmingly white population in outstate Missouri is "uncomfortable with people they are not familiar with." You can read more of Warren's comments in the earlier story below.

That observation was roundly criticized Thursday by Blunt, who called Warren's assertions "abhorrent" and said they should be "condemned by officials in both political parties."

"Ken Warren's allegation that President-elect Obama lost Missouri because 'the racist vote in rural Missouri cost him the state' is not only detestable, it is absolutely incorrect," Blunt said in a statement issued by his office.

"Both the liberal New York Times and conservative Wall Street Journal published articles today on how race was a relatively minor factor in electing our new president."

Responding to Blunt, Warren said Thursday, "The governor has no legs to stand on. He would be foolish to deny the numerous studies on race and voting behavior." Warren continued, "I never said rural people wouldn't vote for a black. I said some rural people feel uncomfortable voting for a black." 

He added, "Racism played a minor role because the racist vote is small. But in a race where the difference was 0.2 percent, I stand steadfast in my comment that racism played a deciding role."

Warren's comments were based in part on the fact that while Nixon won his race for governor with nearly 1.7 million votes, Obama received more than 200,000 fewer Missouri votes than that in his race against McCain, who outpolled Obama in the state by about 6,000 votes.

Warren's exit poll was conducted in the St. Louis area only. A statewide exit poll conducted for the Associated Press showed that white voters in Missouri favored McCain 57-42 percent, while his nationwide total among whites was 55-43 percent over Obama.

The vote percentage among whites in Missouri was identical to 2004, when 57 percent favored President George W. Bush over Democrat John Kerry, the AP poll found.

Marvin Overby, a political science at the University of Missouri in Columbia, said that it is too early to tell what role race may have played in McCain's narrow victory. But, he added, other factors need to be considered when comparing the vote totals of Nixon and Obama.

"It's tempting whenever you see a white candidate of one party do better than a black candidate of the same party to draw racial conclusions," Overby said. "But to say race based on a cursory reading of where the votes are is a course that is fraught with peril.

"Jay Nixon is well known to the people of Missouri. He has been attorney general for four terms and has run seven times for statewide office. Barack Obama went to parts of the state that candidates don't always go and did a real good job in his campaign, but the fact that he ended up with 200,000 fewer votes than Nixon doesn't say race to me."

He notes that Kenny Hulshof, the Republican candidate for governor, isn't well known outside his former mid-Missouri congressional district. Plus, McCain ran a spirited campaign in Missouri right up until Election Day.

Overby did note that in the only two presidential elections over the past 100 years where Missouri did not vote for the winner, race played some role.

Besides this year, he pointed out that in 1956, when Democrat Adlai Stevenson won the state over incumbent Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Court decision desegregating public schools was only two years old, and Eisenhower was strongly tied to what was an unpopular ruling.

Still, Overby said, to conclude that race was the decisive factor in the Obama-McCain race is "at best premature, if not misleading. There are so many factors at work."

David Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, agreed that "all kinds of factors" played a part in the result, including race. He said that you don't have to talk about Nixon's numbers vs. Obama's or the rural-urban divide. "Every state and every region and every city has some fraction of the citizens who would not vote for a member of their political party who was African American," he said.

Robertson cited a 2003 Gallup Poll that asked people to respond to  "If your party nominated a generally well qualified person for president who happened to be black, would you vote for that person?" Six percent said no. "Six percent," Robertson said, "is a big margin." But he also noted that the number is declining. In 1958, 53 percent of the population said no to the same question; by 1984, that number had shrunk to 16 percent.

Jack Cardetti, a spokesman for the Missouri Democratic Party, attributed the disparity between Nixon's vote total and Obama's to Nixon's "incredible campaign." He said that while Nixon primarily concentrated on issues like health care, jobs and education, he did not shy away from urging votes for Obama when the candidates campaigned together.

He also said that the elimination of straight-ticket voting, new in Missouri this year for a presidential race, may also have led to Nixon getting more votes than Obama.

In the end, Cardetti said, "Missourians went to the ballot box and voted for a change in leadership in the state. Americans went to the ballot box and voted for a change of direction in the country. Missouri Democrats are thrilled that Barack Obama won the election and will be the next president." 

Our original story:

Anyone studying the returns from Tuesday's statewide balloting in Missouri will be immediately struck by two numbers:

Jay Nixon got 58.4 percent of the vote to recapture the governor's mansion for the Democrats, while President-elect Barack Obama failed to win the state, falling short by about 6,000 votes with 49.2 percent to John McCain's 49.4 percent.

The question is why. Was Nixon that much better of a candidate than Obama, or was the first African-American to capture the presidency unable to overcome racial prejudice in what has been hailed for years as a bellwether state?

"I would say unequivocally that the racist vote in rural Missouri cost him the state," St. Louis University political scientist Ken Warren said Wednesday.

"People don't like to use that term, but what else do you call it? We have the data to support that."

Warren, who conducted an exit poll for the Beacon on Election Day, noted that in the St. Louis area, Obama did better than Democrat Claire McCaskill did in her successful run for the U.S. Senate in 2006. But he was unable to get enough strength in outstate Missouri to defeat McCain, where McCaskill was able to match her urban showing with enough votes in rural areas to defeat incumbent Sen. Jim Talent.

"There was a redneck vote in the rural areas," Warren said about Obama's showing.

"Why did Obama not do as well as other Democratic candidates? Unquestionably, it was not over the issues. People don't vote by and large on the issues. They vote on visceral responses.

"Why did they vote for Nixon, (Chris) Koster, (Robin) Carnahan -- three white people -- and not vote for Obama? There's no question that in rural areas, they're not going to vote for a black guy."

Warren was quick to add that such voting patterns are typical and have been for years, and not only along racial lines.

"I'm not condemning anyone for this kind of vote. Electoral behavior experts have known for decades that people vote for who they are comfortable with. Irish vote for Irish, Italians vote for Italians, Polish vote for Polish, Mormons vote for Mormons, women vote for women and so forth.

"It's not like it's unexpected that people who are outside the metropolitan areas, where there is almost no black population, are uncomfortable with people they are not familiar with."

Terry Jones, political scientist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, took another tack when comparing the relative strength of Obama and Nixon.

He noted that whatever residual ill will Nixon may have had from the African-American community over his position in the school desegregation case as attorney general has waned, and he has gone out of his way to court black leaders.

"Jay has been in statewide office for a sufficient period of time and has enhanced his ability for both outstate and urban Missouri voters to be comfortable with him. He got the normal Democratic performance in St. Louis County and St. Louis city, and he did it without losing any of his ability to win votes outstate.

"He's not saying different things in terms of different issues as he campaigns around the state. He fairly distinctly limited his campaign to a small number of issues -- health care, and to a lesser extent higher education and jobs. But he knows how to deliver that message, through an anecdote or a story, differently in Chillicothe than he does in the city of St. Louis."

As far as the Obama-Nixon disparity, Jones said he doesn't believe in "reverse coattails, where someone lower on the ticket is helping someone higher up. I don't think he was saying too much about vote for Obama when he was on the stump.

"For starters, if you were going to make a claim of reverse coattails, you would have to have some indication that when Jay Nixon went to different places around Missouri, particularly places that were all white or nearly all white, he would spend some of his stump speech asking people to vote for Obama."

Though all of the state's precincts had reported votes on Wednesday, election officials said 7,000 provisional ballots remained -- ballots that were cast by people whose registration status was not clear. They were allowed to vote anyway, and local election jurisdictions have two weeks to determine whether their votes should count.

Ryan Hobart, a spokesman for the elections division of the secretary of state's office, said that historically, about one-third of the provisional ballots end up counting -- not enough to bridge the gap between Obama and McCain. He said about 3,000 of the provisional ballots were from St. Louis County, with the rest spread throughout the state.

One number of note from Tuesday's balloting for president in Missouri: Ralph Nader received more than 17,000 votes, which was more than McCain's victory margin. But Jones does not think anyone can blame Nader for Obama's defeat.

"I would not interpret a vote for Nader as a lost vote for Obama," he said. "I would interpret it as someone not prepared to vote for either McCain or Obama but who wanted to vote anyway.

"If Nader were not on the ballot, that vote would have gone to one of the other minor candidates or not have been cast at all."