Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Obama and the Scotch-Irish in Appalachia and Colorado

Great post from Josh Marshall last night that really dissects the issue of Obama's "white working class" deficit and reveals that it's much, much more specific than that. Obama is not losing a broad group of white working class voters, instead it is a very specific demographic. Josh explains,

There's been a lot of talk in this campaign about Barack Obama's problem with working class white voters or rural voters. But these claims are both inaccurate because they are incomplete. You can look at states like Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states and see the different numbers and they are all explained by one basic fact. Obama's problem isn't with white working class voters or rural voters. It's Appalachia. That explains why Obama had a difficult time in Ohio and Pennsylvania and why he's getting crushed in West Virginia and Kentucky.

If it were just a matter of rural voters or the white working class, the pattern would show up in other regions. But by and large it does not.

In so many words, Pennsylvania and Ohio have big chunks of Appalachia within their borders. But those regions are heavily offset by non-Appalachian sections that are cultural and demographically distinct. West Virginia is 100% Appalachian. If you look at southeastern Ohio or the middle chunk of Pennsylvania, Obama did about the same as he's doing tonight in West Virginia.

Local political science blogger Enik Rising notes that the problem with the Scotch-Irish is not just limited to Appalachia. Indeed it has extended to the Scotch-Irish areas of Colorado,

I was discussing this with a colleague, who pointed out to me that the Scots-Irish have spread out from Appalachia over time into places like the Ozarks of Missouri and southeastern Colorado... Although Obama won the state 2-1, Clinton won in the southeastern counties, where the Scots-Irish settled.

It's really an interesting phenomenon. Marshall attempts to explain the phenomenon as a result of demographics and history,

It's overwhelmingly white, economically underdeveloped (another legacy of the pre-civil war pattern) and arguably because of that underdevelopment has very low education rates and disproportionately old populations.

Does that pattern hold up for Colorado as well? That is, do the counties that Hillary won in Colorado have the same demographic patterns (outside of just their Scotch-Irish heritage) relative to the state of Colorado that Appalachia has to the states of Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia?

Let's look at the 9 southeastern Colorado counties that Clinton won outright (they tied in Bent county) - they include: Baca, Cheyenne, Conejos, Costilla, Kiowa, Kit Carson, Las Animas, Prowers, Pueblo Counties.

[Note: Enik Rising shows a win in Saguache county for Clinton. The Colorado Democratic Party's site shows Obama leading 180 to 87 with 88.89% reporting. I am excluding Saguache from this analysis unless and until it can be demonstrated that Clinton did win there.]

Using U.S. Census data I looked at the following for each county compared to the rate for Colorado as a whole: percentage of population that is white; retail sales per capita and per capita income (to loosely measure economic development); the percentage of population that is 65 or older; and finally to determine the relative education of the population I looked at the percentage of the population with a high school diploma and the percentage that have a Bachelor's degree or higher.

Sure enough in all 9 counties and across the 6 measurements we see that the populations of those counties are whiter, less educated, older and with lower income and lower retail per capita than the state average. In many cases significantly so and in only one case does a Scotch-Irish county come anywhere near state averages - Kiowa's percentage of high school diplomas is less than 1 percent below average at 86%.

What does this all mean? I think Enik is on point when they conclude,

Although Obama won the state 2-1, Clinton won in the southeastern counties, where the Scots-Irish settled.

This strikes me as an under-reported phenomenon in elections. The media focus a lot on momentum and other campaign effects. After Pennsylvania, Obama was expected to not do well in Indiana because Clinton had momentum and because Obama had a spate of tough press associated with Jeremiah Wright. When he did better than expected, it was assumed he did so because he's "tough" or had somehow blunted the attacks. Or just maybe it was because Indiana is not part of Appalachia.

Just how much of these state-to-state variations (or, really, county-to-county variations) can be explained by the ethnic compositions of the local populations? If we measure this stuff right, is there any sort of campaign effect left?

This is the sort of stuff that really is determinative in our elections. As much as the media, the television pundits and consultant personalities obsess over perceived changes in the horse race and drummed up "scandals" and "gaffes" the outcome of a campaign is determined by the fundamentals. That's why after all of the daily up and downs and changing story lines the actual outcomes of the elections have been somewhat predictable, if you're studying the right data.

It's worth noting in regards to the general election that John McCain is of Scots-Irish ancestry.


Enik said...

Nice post, and interesting analysis. Are there census data that break things down by ancestry? Could we find the percentages of county residents who are of Scots-Irish origin, versus German, French, Eastern European, etc.?

Meanwhile, according to MSNBC, Clinton won Saguache County 87-80. I'm wondering if made a typo.

Steam Powered Opinions said...

On Saguache, that seems plausible to me. I'll call the Colorado Dem today and see what they say.

As for the census data, I wish it were that detailed. Perusing the US Census website there is some ancestry data but

1. It doesn't cover any of the counties in question save for Pueblo.

2. It does not break down European ancestry. It does for Hispanics, Asians, American Indians and Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders.

I'm assuming that the counties we are discussing are far to small.

Thanks for diving in over here. I really enjoy your writing.