How Obama Survived the Culture War

 Posted by  Larry Bartels

Much of this year’s Republican presidential campaign consisted of a series of blistering attacks portraying the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, as an elitist, a celebrity, a socialist, a pal of domestic terrorists, and a stranger to “real America.” It would be hard to imagine a campaign better suited to appeal to the culturally conservative working-class white voters depicted in Thomas Frank’s 2004 best seller, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”

Obama himself seemed to exacerbate the culture clash when he suggested back in April that “bitter” small-town folks on the losing end of economic change “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” He added that they “don’t vote on economic issues, because they don’t expect anybody’s going to help them.” If that was true—either before Obama’s comments or because of them—then the Democratic ticket seemed poised for big losses among the sorts of people Frank described.
So how did voters respond? According to the exit polls, Obama outpolled the previous Democratic nominee, John Kerry, among people from small towns and rural areas and among gun owners. He also did better than Kerry among white males, white Protestants, and white evangelicals. In short, the culture clash seems to have fizzled among many of the people supposedly most alienated by the cosmopolitan bent of the contemporary Democratic Party.
Of course, Obama was greatly advantaged by voters’ economic distress and by the remarkable unpopularity of the incumbent president. Perhaps white men, gun owners, and other stereotypical “backlash” voters were simply swept along reluctantly in this year’s Democratic tide.
The exit poll results strongly suggest that there was more to it than that. Obama actually recorded some of his biggest gains among white voters in some of the most culturally conservative parts of the country. He outpolled Kerry by 6 to 10 percentage points among white voters in Indiana, North Dakota, Utah, Montana, Nebraska, and—yes—Thomas Frank’s Kansas. In contrast, exit polls recorded smaller gains for Obama among white voters in bastions of elitism like New York, Connecticut, and California.
Obama did better among lower-income white voters than among those with higher incomes—a familiar pattern for recent Democratic presidential candidates. After months of hand-wringing punditry about his problems with the white working class in the distressed industrial Midwest, he won majorities among white voters with below-average incomes in West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, and a near-majority in Pennsylvania. (John McCain won a majority of more affluent white voters in all those states and 27 others.)
The election of our first black president constitutes “a strikingly symbolic moment in the evolution of the nation’s fraught racial history,” as Adam Nagourney put it in the Times. It has prompted hearty self-congratulation all around regarding the broad-mindedness of American voters. The perception that white Americans succeeded in transcending racial antipathy is reinforced by the fact that only 9% of voters in the exit poll said that race was a major factor in their decision, and they mostly voted for Obama.
However, there is a good deal of circumstantial evidence suggesting that racial resentment eroded Obama’s support among white voters. His gains relative to Kerry were significantly smaller in states with large numbers of African-Americans—a pattern disguised in the overall vote totals by his strong support among African-Americans themselves. In the former Confederacy he gained only slightly over Kerry among white voters, despite making big gains in two key swing states, North Carolina and Virginia. The only states in the country in which he lost more than a point or two of white support were Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi.
The notable resistance of southern whites to Obama’s candidacy continues a half-century trend sparked by the demise of the unnatural southern Democratic monopoly of the Jim Crow era.  From 1952 through 2004, the average level of support for Democratic presidential candidates fell by more than 15 points among white southerners while increasing slightly among whites in the rest of the country. This year’s pattern reinforces that long-term shift, underlining the extent to which the Democratic Party’s much-discussed “culture” problem is really a regional problem rooted in white racial resentment.
Obama himself resisted the notion that antipathy to his candidacy was “simply racial.” Asked during the campaign about his trouble winning support from white men with lower incomes or less education, he answered, “It’s more just that I’m different in all kinds of ways. I’m different even for black people.”
Perhaps so. Nevertheless, black people responded enthusiastically to his candidacy, easily surpassing their already-high levels of support for previous Democratic candidates. What is more surprising is that so many culturally conservative white voters in the Midwest and West also found their way to Obama, rejecting a Republican campaign that was largely devoted to stoking fears of difference. However, in the most racially conservative parts of the white South fears of difference often prevailed.
Judging from last week’s election results, then, not much seems to be the matter with Kansas; but Louisiana may be another story.

This entry also appears as a guest post today on Ezra Klein's blog on The American Prospect.

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The mission of Princeton’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at the Woodrow Wilson School is to promote empirical research on democratic processes and institutions.  That broad mandate has attracted a diverse collection of faculty, students, and visitors pursuing a wide variety of research topics. However, the American electoral process has been a recurrent focus of interest for many of the scholars associated with CSDP and a frequent topic of conferences, colloquia, and other events sponsored by the Center.  As the 2008 campaign unfolds, we thought it might be helpful and fun to collect the election-related research, analyses, and offbeat insights of our extended scholarly community, both for our own edification and as a resource for others interested in how political scientists are thinking about the election.  We welcome contributions, comments, and suggestions. For more about the people and activities of CSDP, please visit our website, To post a comment, click the "speech bubble."

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