Race, Religion, and Obama in Appalachia

By Steven White, Syracuse University

[image credit: The New Yorker.]

In 2008, of the few places where Barack Obama received a lower percentage of the vote than John Kerry, many were concentrated in Appalachia. In 2012, 41 percent of West Virginia Democratic primary voters chose “a prison inmate in Texas” over the sitting president, while in Kentucky 42 percent offered their support for “uncommitted.” And although it was Rust Belt voters who proved pivotal for Donald Trump’s 2016 Electoral College victory, Appalachia is regularly depicted as “Trump Country” in journalistic efforts to explain how it all happened.

Despite this media attention, though, political scientists have given surprisingly little attention to the region. In “Race, Religion, and Obama in Appalachia,” my forthcoming article in Social Science Quarterly, I offer an initial analysis of Appalachian regionalism in the Obama era. My goals were to answer three questions. First, to what extent are Appalachian whites distinctive in their racial attitudes and religious beliefs? Second, to what extent were Appalachian whites especially opposed to the Obama candidacy once standard demographic and political variables are controlled for? And finally, to what extent, if any, can race and religion explain any regional tendencies?

Studying Appalachian attitudes requires defining the region, which is not a straightforward matter. Although Appalachia is “one of the oldest names on North American maps,” the region has “no agreed-upon boundaries” and it sometimes seems that it “exists as much in the mind and imagination as on the map.” While acknowledging that no definition is perfect, for the purposes of the article I defined the region as the counties covered by the Appalachian Regional Commission:

Using surveys to study Appalachia is difficult because the region is defined by counties rather than states, and commonly used surveys like the ANES and GSS are not designed to be representative at such small geographical units. To get around these hurdles, I used data from the 2008 National Annenberg Election Survey, which interviewed 57,967 respondents using a random digit dialing sampling procedure. Of these respondents, 5,220 are whites living in Appalachia.

I first wanted to see whether there was a regional difference in presidential voting behavior. I found that there was: Controlling for ideology, partisanship, gender, age, income, education, union membership, and size of place, Appalachian whites were still 7 percentage points more likely to vote for McCain over Obama in 2008.

To study racial attitudes, I relied on questions that measure perceived racial favoritism. These include questions that ask whether black elected officials are more likely to “favor blacks for government jobs over white applicants” or “support government spending that favors blacks.” Controlling for other variables, Appalachian whites are generally about 5-7 percentage points more likely to agree with these statements. This is a sizable difference, but notably smaller than what I find in the non-Appalachian South, where whites are even more likely to agree with such sentiments.

To study religion, I used two measures: (1) self-identification as an Evangelical or born-again Christian and (2) how often the respondent reports attending church services. Controlling for other variables, Appalachian whites are more likely to attend church weekly and are especially more likely (the marginal effect is 19 percentage points) to identify as a born-again Christian. Indeed, Appalachian residence has a larger correlation with born-again Christian identification than more conventional variables like education or Republican partisanship.

What happens when these variables are included in a 2008 presidential vote choice model? When a perceived racial favoritism scale is included, the Appalachia marginal effect declines slightly to 5 percentage points. When born-again Christian identification and church attendance are both included in the model, the Appalachia marginal effect declines to 4 percentage points (and now is only marginally statistically significant). When all three measures – perceived racial favoritism, born-again Christian identification, and church attendance – are included, Appalachian regional opposition to the 2008 Obama candidacy disappears statistically: the estimated marginal effect of 3 percentage points is not statistically significant.

In other words, while Appalachian whites seem distinctive, this largely fades once their racial attitudes and, especially, religious beliefs and behaviors are accounted for. Although debates about white voting behavior are often framed around race vs. economic interests, this suggests that religion might be an especially important factor in making sense of why so many Appalachian whites opposed the Obama presidency. Of course, race and religion are hardly unrelated: The nation’s first black president was subjected to persistent rumors that he was not a U.S. citizen, was a practicing Muslim, and so on. This suggests that white Evangelicals in Appalachia might have been likely to view Obama not just as racially other, but also culturally and religiously other as well. These interconnected factors might account for Obama’s tough electoral fortunes in the region.

My hope is that more political scientists will be motivated to study the politics of Appalachia, especially scholars of southern politics who tend to follow V. O. Key in distinguishing between the Deep and Rim South, but have given less attention to his interesting discussion of “mountain Republicans” in the Appalachian region. Scholars of religion and politics might also be interested in further examining the particular type of religiosity in the region. Religion scholars, of course, might prefer more fine-grained measures than are available from the Annenberg dataset. The challenge will be finding surveys that ask such questions and are based on a sampling design that facilitates the study of regionalism defined by county rather than state boundaries.

Steven White is an assistant professor of political science in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. His research primarily examines race and American political development, particularly the complicated relationship between war and the inclusion of marginalized groups. You can find him on twitter as notstevenwhite.

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