‘Race’ still a factor for many Tennessee voters
Posted: Thursday, November 6, 2008 8:06 pm
By DUNCAN MANSFIELD
Associated Press Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — Race was on the minds of many Tennesseans when they went to the polls in the 2008 election and voted, with much of the South, overwhelmingly for Republican John McCain over Democrat Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president-elect.
About a quarter (27 percent) of Tennessee voters said the candidate’s race was a factor in how they voted: 16 percent called it important and 6 percent said it was their single-most important factor, according to exit polls conducted for the television networks and The Associated Press.
Those numbers are all higher than the nation as a whole, where 19 percent of voters considered the candidate’s race in balloting: 9 percent calling it important and 2 percent saying it was most important.
This can be a good thing or a bad thing; an indication of racial pride or fear.
It doesn’t explain why Tennesseans, particularly white independents, voted in such large numbers for McCain over Obama. Most said they sided with McCain on fixing the economy and felt he shared their values.
Ultimately, McCain’s 56-42 percent victory margin over Obama in Tennessee was the same as President Bush’s margin over Democrat John Kerry in Tennessee in 2004.
“That we finally got an African American who can be president, that’s a big issue for me,” said Obama voter Leslie Wooten, 24, of Memphis. “It’s like another Martin Luther King moment, a big moment for our race.”
Elizabeth Gipson, a 25-year-old voter in Martin, said she could care less about the color of a candidate’s skin. “But it does make a difference to some people and I think it’s important that people look past that,” she said, without saying whom she voted for.
“Yes, race matters,” said Max Phiapalath, a 20-year-old Asian college student from Memphis who voted for Obama. “Not for me, but for some people it does. It’s definitely a Southern thing.”
Whites voted more heavily against Obama in three Southern states — Alabama (10 percent), Louisiana (14 percent) and Arkansas (30 percent) — than they did against Kerry four years ago.
This was not the case in Tennessee, where 34 percent of whites voted for Obama — the same as for Kerry in 2004. McCain had twice as many white votes as Obama in Tennessee, but whites still gave Obama most of his support (68 percent) because of the state’s small black voting bloc.
Blacks, who make up 17 percent of the state’s population, comprised only 12 percent of the voter turnout on Tuesday — compared with 13 percent in 1996, 18 percent in 2000 and 13 percent in 2004. So while blacks’ support for Obama was near unanimous, their votes made up less than a third of his Tennessee tally.
Ninety-five percent of McCain’s support in Tennessee came from whites.
Two years ago, Democrat Harold Ford Jr., vying to become the South’s first black U.S. senator since Reconstruction, lost a much closer contest to Republican Bob Corker. In that election, Ford claimed 40 percent of the white votes and 95 percent of the black votes and lost 51-48 percent.
Ford campaigned relentlessly across the state. Obama did no campaigning in red state Tennessee, save for a national television debate with McCain in Nashville in October.
Nationally, 43 percent of whites cast their ballots for Obama on Tuesday. They represented 61 percent of his support.
“I woke up this morning and it hit me that I never expected to see someone of color run and get as far as he has,” said Obama voter Brian Woods, a 36-year-old Michigan native now living in Bartlett near Memphis. “Obama represents what America is now and what it will be in the future.”
The survey of 1,520 Tennessee voters was conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. Most were interviewed in a random sample of 20 precincts statewide Tuesday; 422 who voted early or absentee were interviewed by landline telephone over the last week. Results for the full sample were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, higher for subgroups.
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Methodology details: http://surveys.ap.org/exitpolls