Workers in a Bristol, Virginia, Kroger's grocery story listened to President Obama pitch his health care reforms Wednesday.

I wanted to add my voice to the chorus of caution against those who cite the New York Times “McCain Belt“ map (November 5) as evidence that Appalachian whites rejected Barack Obama over matters of race (or culture). Several data points should help to dispel the myths from the outset and put this map in perspective:

1. In West Virginia, Barack Obama earned the votes of 41% of white voters, almost equal to his 43% white vote nationwide.

2. In Tennessee, Barack Obama earned the votes of 34% of white voters, virtually identical to his margin in “blue” North Carolina (35%). Tennessee’s white vote for Obama was identical to the white vote for Kerry.

3. In the 9th Congressional District of Virginia (southwest), Obama slightly increased his margin over Kerry; McCain won it 59-40 and Bush won it 60-39. Not much of a gain but hardly a sign that Obama’s race turned Democrats into McCain voters.

4. The real red “flip” counties in Appalachia were coal counties: Dickenson and Buchanan in Virginia, Breathitt and Pike in Kentucky, Mingo and Logan in West Virginia. The reason may have more to do with the decline of coal mining unions than race, as these counties have been trending to the GOP for several cycles now. They are beginning to look more like the rest of West Virginia, Kentucky and southwest Virginia, and Obama did little to change that. The same is true for southwest Pennsylvania counties like Fayette, which have gone less Democratic every year since the 1990s.

Counties that voted more Republican in the 2008 presidential election than in 2004
Map: Shan Carter, Jonathan Corum, Amanda Cox, Farhana Hossain, Xaquin G.V.
for the New York Times

If there is a common characteristic of the “red belt” where McCain improved over Bush it’s that Obama never visited the area. Barack Obama, for a variety of electoral reasons, never came to eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia (except a brief stop in Beckley and Charleston in the primary), Tennessee, Arkansas or Oklahoma (the latter two not being Appalachian but places where McCain made gains). Obama did, in fact, visit several Appalachian areas of Virginia and showed historic gains there. Barack Obama won the cities of Harrisonburg and Staunton for the first time for a Democrat since World War II. Obama also won Lexington, Winchester and Martinsville, in addition to Nelson (tied in 2004), Montgomery (which went for Bush 54-45); and Albemarle County turned from a slight Kerry victory to a blowout for Obama. Charlottesville was a blowout for Obama. In the Shenandoah Valley counties of Virginia north of Roanoke, Obama made gains averaging 5-8 points – similar to the state overall. Same is true for the West Virginia counties northeast of Charleston.

Barack Obama campaigned in Abingdon, Virginia (Washington Co.) Sept. 9; he lost to John McCain here, 33 to 66%
Photo: David Katz

It appears that in the non-coal sections of rural Appalachia Obama did about as well as Kerry but not much better. In the urban sections of Appalachia Obama far surpassed Kerry. In the coal counties Obama suffered his biggest losses.

The one disappointment, and potential counter-example, is Russell County, Virginia. Obama visited Lebanon in Russell County and yet still managed to lose votes vis-à-vis Kerry. I’m not sure how much coal there is in Russell County, but in any case this might be an example of McCain making gains in an Appalachia county where Obama campaigned in person.

Overall, the evidence of racial backlash against Obama is strongest in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, not in Appalachia. Only 10% of whites in Alabama voted for Obama, compared to 19% of Alabama whites voting for Kerry. The dropoff was statewide, not just in the northeastern mountain counties.

Racism was undoubtedly present in the 2008 election, including in Appalachia. But it was rarely determinative. If Obama suffered in Appalachia it was not because of his race. It was because he never spent time in the region getting to know voters. With all the obscene rumors passed around about him, the lack of a visit meant fewer opportunities to dispel these slanders in person.

Aaron Astor is Professor of U.S. History at Maryville College, Maryville, Tennessee, specializing in the South, African American history and Appalachian history. His commentary first appeared on the Appalnet, a LISTSERV of Appalachian issues.

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