Blacks helped Thad Cochran win? –Not so fast.
A seductive meme: ‘Black voters in Mississippi helped Thad Cochran win’. But it sounds too good to be true.
One day after the primary, the story makes the rounds like Paul Revere, except faster and in a warmer climate–black voters held their noses, or better, and put Sen. Thad Cochran over the top in a perilously close runoff, after he was being written off for dead by the national political press. Examples abound, like here and here and here and here. A related meme and a more refined way of saying the same thing runs that ‘Democrats helped Cochran pull off the win’; a by-product of Mississippi’s ‘open primary’ system, Cochran’s win is attributed to crossover voting by Democrats who did not vote in the June 3rd Mississippi primary, as in this article. There are less polite ways of putting the same thing; setting aside most of the predictable non-news-media examples from wingers, a typical partisan example runs here, with an interesting thread. ‘Cochran won with the help of Democrats’ is all over cyberspace, not entirely with a view to praising Cochran.
Challenger Chris McDaniel himself is taking a version of the same line, expressing public doubt about whether the GOP senate primary in Mississippi was won by Republican voters.
From the top–it is entirely possible that a few African-Americans voted for Cochran, and in an extremely close county, even a few votes would influence the win, at least for that county. For my money, though, it is highly unlikely that the outcome in Hinds County will turn out to have been brought about by African-American votes.
If I turn out to be wrong, so be it; I’ll believe it when I see it. Further evidence will be interesting. Meanwhile–
This is a juicy story, and I am all for juicy stories. In a payback’s-a-bitch kind of way, it is almost irresistible: McDaniel supporters who did everything but show up in white sheets to vote, stymied by some of the overlooked figures disenfranchised for so long, like a scene from Blazing Saddles. In somewhat more elevated perspective, the story is appealing as another chapter of forgiveness in a very long book. It is also refreshing in showing at least some acquaintance with history; recognizing, for example, that the flatland (alluvial plain) areas of Mississippi are the areas with the largest majorities of African Americans, for reasons briefly explained below.
But at this point, whatever truth there may be in this story is getting way too big a megaphone. It seems almost ungracious to raise questions, but questions remain.
For a start, we do not know how many African Americans turned out to vote in the June 24 runoff. A few media interviews do not make a trend; more importantly, they do not provide exact and accurate numbers. Since Mississippi does not register voters by party, we do not know how many registered Democrats voted in the runoff; we do not know how many of the June 24 voters were Republican and how many were Democratic. In fact, party registration in the Magnolia State has to be inferred from votes, after an election, as in this 2012 article. (Note that the piece quotes then-State Sen. Chris McDaniel on a GOP ‘enthusiasm gap’.) Or, of course, one can try to infer it from ethnicity, since the Mississippi GOP has been the de facto White People’s Party ever since the Dixiecrats ran out of sand.
Mississippi has 82 counties. Cochran carried some 52 of them in the June 3rd primary–a better outcome than hinted by most of the media coverage. In the June 24th runoff, he lost two counties that he had won before, while increasing his totals and of course improving the outcome. As widely reported, both Cochran and McDaniel upped their totals and the turnout on June 24. The over-all vote from unofficial results was Cochran 185,104 to McDaniel 179,263 or a statewide margin of 5,841 for Cochran.
The scenario making the rounds is that Cochran won by drawing more votes in majority-black counties, especially in the Mississippi Delta. This synopsis is the one that needs demurral. There is a difference between saying that Cochran won in black-majority counties, which is accurate–though not the whole picture–and saying that Cochran won because blacks voted for him. The latter statement needs careful checking.
(For convenience, I am using this map.)
Start by taking a look at the Delta region, actually not deltoid but a rather broad swath of flat land–alluvial plain–running north and south up and down the Mississippi River, in Mississippi and Arkansas. This land was farmed as ‘plantations’ in Mississippi in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, importing large numbers of slave laborers, because its immense tracts of fertile soil were ripe for the early versions of agribusiness, making cash crops like cotton and rice profitable where they were less feasible in the wooded hill country elsewhere in the state. The descendants of slaves outnumber the descendants of slaveholders in Delta counties–a fact not lost on the state’s white power structure.
True enough, Cochran won in every Delta county up and down the Mississippi River, except for Wilkinson County down at the bottom of this stretch (but north of the Gulf Coast), and DeSoto County at the very top of the stretch (but south of Memphis). However, look at Cochran’s margins of victory in these lands of former grandees.
Vote margins, heading south down the Mississippi River from Tunica County:
- 689 (Bolivar)
- 849 (Washington)
- 424 (Warren)
Remember, these are actual votes cast, not percentages. Of these Delta counties, Cochran won three by fewer than 100 votes. He won another three by fewer than 500 votes. This is nine out of 82 counties, all majority African-American, giving Thad Cochran a total vote margin (in unofficial returns) of 2,827 votes. A win is a win, of course, and some of the percentages are impressive–Washington County went for Cochran by 70 percent, Tunica County by 72 percent–but those percentages mask some very micro numbers. Issaquena County gave Cochran the win by a whopping 71 percent–which translates into 92 votes (to 37 for McDaniel). It is entirely possible that this turnout, which will surely earn Mr. Cochran the nickname of ‘Landslide Thad’ for the next several years, was 100 percent white.
For good or ill, this is not a black avalanche. In fact, Cochran’s wins all along the river gave him a total margin of victory less than the margin for McDaniel in DeSoto County alone; DeSoto, also touching the river but majority white, went for McDaniel by a margin of 3,904.
The Delta being a fairly wide expanse in some places, let’s move over one row of counties eastward, to be thorough, and tally the next north-to-south row of counties. This series of 13 counties begins just south of DeSoto County, which as mentioned went almost two-to-one for McDaniel. Though not touching the Big Muddy, these counties are contiguous to those next to the Mississippi and share some features. Tate County at the north end of this row of counties, and majority white, went for McDaniel, as did Franklin and Amite at the south end of this stretch. The counties that Cochran won gave him the following margins, north to south:
- 413 (Sunflower)
- 234 (Sharkey)
- 235 (Yazoo)
- 5,301 (Hinds)
- 432 (Lincoln)
Again, these are the margins by numerical vote. (In my county, they would look more like precinct totals, not county totals, except for the Jackson tally.) Cochran won three of these counties by fewer than 100 votes, six by fewer than 500 votes, and only one–Hinds County, with the city of Jackson–by a substantial margin.
Margins for McDaniel in Tate, Franklin, and Amite:
Compare these margins. Leaving Hinds County aside, Cochran’s total margin for this row of counties one over from the Mississippi was 1,929. McDaniel’s total margin for his wins in three counties in this row was 1,142. Counting Hinds County, Cochran’s total vote margin from his wins in these 24 counties was 10,057. McDaniel’s total vote margin, in the same area of the state, in counties where he won, was 5,046. The difference even including Jackson is 5,011 votes.
Yes, McDaniel lost the state by only 5,841 votes.
But he won Jones County (alone) by 9,209 votes.
Taking a look at the statewide picture from a different angle, let’s start with majority-white areas that went for Cochran. Take the Gulf Coast.
Majority white Harrison County gave Cochran a solid win. Hancock County, 90 percent white, gave Cochran a solid win. Of the three Mississippi counties on the coast, all three with very sizable white majorities, only Jackson County went for McDaniel, by 296 votes.
Cochran’s total vote margin in the largely-white Gulf Coast of Mississippi: 410 + 3,633 – 296 = 3,747.
The Gulf Coast vote for Cochran is being written about–or written off–as the result of military contracts, and it may indeed be related to business and contracts. That still leaves the rest of the state. Cochran won almost two-thirds of the 82 Mississippi counties, spread over the state from Alcorn in the north to Harrison in the south, and from Bolivar in the west to Lowndes on the eastern border with Alabama. Two additional small majority-black counties that went for Cochran include Noxubee, with a margin of 64 votes, on the eastern border of the state, and Kemper just south of Noxubee, with a margin of 80 votes. Majority-white counties that went for Cochran include Tippah, Alcorn, Prentiss, Lauderdale, Lowndes, Monroe, Smith, Simpson, Scott, Newton, and Neshoba. This list is not exhaustive, and more detailed analysis of the runoff election will have to wait for official vote tallies. Meanwhile, however, it will be wise to remember that while McDaniel did better than Cochran in some rural thicketed counties, Cochran still won quite a few of them. And while McDaniel indeed seems not to have won any counties that were not majority-white, Cochran won a sizable number of both majority-white and majority-black counties.
Furthermore, the small vote totals leave an outcome easily conceivable in a universe of white, Republican Mississippi voters. If Cochran’s vote totals and margins had been in the tens of thousands, the picture would be different. But neither the votes themselves nor the increase in Cochran’s turnout over the June 3 is evidence of African-American ballots. Cochran may have grown his vote “in the Mississippi Delta, the largely black and strongly Democratic northwest of the state,” as in this roundup in Slate, but neither the increase nor the margin of victory nor the number of votes cast shows an incursion of cross-party voting; the numbers fall easily inside the range of possibility for–frankly–exclusively white voters. In any case, the brief scenario linked here omits the fact that Cochran also grew his vote in other terrains and in numerous other counties around the state, as above.
Time will tell more about such evidence as there is. The weird case of the McDaniel supporters has yet to unfold. Meanwhile, the outside-agitators meme is better confined to the extreme amounts of money actually, provably, demonstrably spent on this statewide runoff, rather than extended to fantasies of voter sabotage of an ‘open primary’.
Next: This Is an “Open” Primary?