Let me add a couple of thoughts to Sean Trende’s excellent Real Clear Politics column on Barack Obama’s weakness in the Scots-Irish zone of America. Trende uses Obama’s weak showings in the West Virginia, Kentucky and Arkansas primaries this month to make the larger point that this region, where Bill Clinton was competitive in 1992 and 1996, has now become very heavily Republican, offsetting or more than offsetting gains Democrats have made in the Mountain West states of New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and (maybe) Arizona.
The Scots-Irish zone represents parts of America settled by the Scots-Irish who came across the Atlantic in huge numbers in the years 1763-75, just before the Revolution, and settled in the Appalachian ridges from southwest Pennsylvania to Upcountry South Carolina and then for three generations in a sort of drang nach southwest settled country going southwest and west to Texas and Oklahoma. The Scots-Irish zone is plainly visible if you make a map highlighting the counties where Hillary Clinton thrashed Barack Obama by the widest margins in 2008 (this also includes Hispanic counties in south Texas) or a map showing the counties where John McCain won a higher percentage of the vote in 2008 than George W. Bush had in 2004. There’s a big overlap here with the counties where, in response to the Census Bureau’s question about ancestry, the largest number of responses were “American.” The Scots-Irish didn’t regard themselves as immigrants and over the years have shown little interest in their lands of origin in Northern Ireland and Lowland Scotland. Technically they were not immigrants at all; they were people who moved from one fringe of the British Empire to another. Their identity as Americans came early. Andrew Jackson in his call for volunteers in Tennessee for the War of 1812 said, “We are free born sons of America, the citizens of the only republick [sic] now existing in the world; and the only people on earth who possess rights, liberties, and property which they dare call their own.” That’s the spirit that Walter Russell Mead in his wonderful book Special Providence describes as Jacksonian.
As historian David Hackett Fischer and Virginia Senator Jim Webb have pointed out in their accounts of the Scots-Irish, they are fighting peoples, willing to leave others alone if they are left alone, but if their families or their country are threatened they will fight to utterly exterminate their enemies. A belief in American exceptionalism, a determination to fight to what Franklin Roosevelt in his Pearl Harbor speech described as “absolute victory”: these are attitudes that are profoundly different from those of Barack Obama. Couple that with Jacksonians’ aversion to crony capitalism—as evident in Jackson’s speech explaining his veto of the rechartering of the Bank of the United States in 1832—and it is apparent that these people have plenty of reasons to vote against Obama other than a purported dislike of black people. And in assessing charges that they’re voting against him because of race, you might want to take into account the fact that Buchanan County in far southwest Virginia, adjoining both West Virginia and Kentucky, which voted 90%-9% for Clinton over Obama in 2008, back in 1989 voted 59%-41% for Douglas Wilder, the first black governor of Virginia. Scots-Irish Democrats are willing to vote for black candidates, just not for Obama.
A second point. In comparing the Mountain West and the Jacksonian bloc, Trende writes: “To be sure, the Mountain West states have been growing, while Greater Appalachia has been in decline. But it will take about 30 years before these Mountain West states, including Arizona, equal our Jacksonian states in terms of the Electoral College.” Actually, the Scots-Irish zone has not been in decline all that much lately. If you define it (differently from Trende) as the five states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma, the region grew relatively little in the decades from 1940 to 1970 but has grown at just below the national average from 1970 to 2010. In the 1940-70 period these five states’ population grew only 12%, compared to the national gain of 54%. They went from 50 electoral votes in the 1940s to 39 electoral votes in elections from 1972 to 1980. In contrast, between 1970 and 2010 these five states’ population grew by 44%, not much below the national average of 53%. The number of electoral votes went from 39 in 1972-80 to 37 in 2010, a pretty minor drop.
The Mountain West has been growing much more rapidly and has been gaining electoral votes. But Trende is right in saying they’re not likely to catch up with Greater Appalachia any time soon. Defining the Mountain West as Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, Greater Appalachia outvoted the Mountain West in the electoral college by 50 to 17 in the 1940s, by 39 to 20 in 1972-80 and will outvote it 37 to 31 in 2012. With immigration from Mexico basically down to zero these days, Trende’s estimate of 30 years for the gap to be fully closed looks about right.