south carolina vote

Election day in Goose Creek, South Carolina
Photo: Eyasu.Solomon

How well is Sen. Barack Obama doing in rural communities?

His campaign believes the Illinois senator is doing quite well in rural America. On Monday, Obama campaign chair David Plouffe told reporters the senator had “strength in small towns and rural areas.” Obama did win the rural vote in the Nevada caucuses and in the South Carolina primary, as the Yonder has reported.

Much of Obama’s vote in the last two big primaries — South Carolina and Florida — has been driven by the vote of African-Americans, who have overwhelmingly supported the young senator. Obama very likely did well in rural South Carolina because the the rural population here is proportionately greater than the black population in South Carolina’s cities. So, if you separate race from rural, is Obama really doing better in rural communities?

Not so far. When you begin to separate race from region, it appears that Obama pays a price in rural communities. When race is taken into account, Obama does considerably better in urban counties. Or, at least, he did better in urban South Carolina and urban Florida than in rural communities.

Florida Vote

Above is a chart plotting Florida’s 35 rural counties (orange) and 32 urban counties (light blue). The farther you go to the right on the horizontal axis, the larger the percentage of African Americans in the county. The vertical axis measures the percent of the vote for Obama in Tuesday’s primary.

You can see that Obama’s vote tracks the black population — generally, the greater the percentage of African-Americans in a county, the greater the vote for Obama. That’s true in urban and rural counties.

But, given the same percentage of black population, urban communities generally voted in higher percentages for Obama than rural counties did. The cloud of light blue urban counties hovers above the cloud of orange rural counties. Given the same percentage of black voters, urban counties in Florida delivered more votes to Obama than did rural counties.

If you prefer straight numbers, here’s another way of seeing the same phenomenon:

In rural Florida, Obama’s vote averaged 9 percentage points above the percent of the black population. For example, in Bradford County, African-Americans make up 20 percent of the population, and Obama got 29 percent of the vote. The difference was about 9 percentage points, making Bradford an average Florida rural county.

In urban Florida, however, the Obama vote averaged 21 percentage points above the share of local black population. (These figures are not weighted by population, by the way.)

Okay, there wasn’t a real campaign in Florida. None of the Democratic candidates ran commercials or appeared at rallies because of a dispute between the Florida party and the Democratic National Committee. Obama’s campaign contends that as people get to know their candidate, then his take of the vote rises. Look at South Carolina, they say.

They’ve got a point. Obama did better in South Carolina than he did in Florida, regardless of race. Still, there was a difference between rural and urban voters.

In the most rural South Carolina counties, Obama averaged 16 percentage points above the percentage of local African American population. In urban South Carolina, however, Obama’s vote was 26 percentage points above the local share of black population.

What accounts for the rural/urban division? We don’t know. It could be age. Obama polled particularly well in counties with large universities, such as Alachua, home to the University of Florida. It could be that rural counties have older voters than urban counties.

It could be that as former senator John Edwards leaves the race, Obama will pick up his votes in rural comunities. (Edwards did his best in rural Florida.)

It is clear, however, that when race is taken into account, Obama so far has fared better in urban counties than in rural ones.

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