Prior to the U.S. presidential election last month, I confidently told several people that Barack Obama, while losing Oklahoma to John McCain, would run a few points ahead of John Kerry when he challenged George Bush’s run for a second term. I was completely wrong, even though there were sound reasons for me to believe I was right. President Bush’s Oklahoma popularlity (approval), while still considerably higher than in many parts of the nation, had fallen to 50% or below. John McCain had not stirred up a lot of monetary contributions from Oklahoma conservatives and he wasn’t fully trusted by many affiliated with the religious right. On the Democratic side, Obama seemed to be attracting the support of a lot of younger Oklahoma registered voters. He had done very well with his fundraising in the state. And, although not scientific, I was sure that I was seeing far more yard signs for Obama than I had for Kerry. I also expected that Obama would do better, and he did, among Oklahoma’s African-American voters and that he would gain a lot of ground among Oklahoma’s Hispanic voters, which also appears to have been the case.
However, come election day, McCain carried all 77 of Oklahoma’s counties, as had Bush before him. And based on results published in the World Almanac and Book of Facts, Obama actually did a smidgen worse in the state-wide popular vote than Kerry’s 2004 performance, with Bush winning 65.57% in 2004 and McCain winning 65.65% this year. The constituencies that made up each camp’s total did change — and to a large extent in some areas. In the two major metropolitan areas of greater Oklahoma City and Tulsa, McCain led Obama by 21 points, down from the 29 points by which Bush had prevailed four years earlier. On the other hand, in the 14 Oklahoma counties (Atoka, Bryan, Choctaw, Coal, Haskell, Hughes, Johnston, Latimer, LeFlore, Marshall, McCurtain, Pittsburg, Pontotoc and Pushmataha)commonly and collectively known as “Little Dixie” because they were largely settled by white southerners who had met with harsh and frequently unjust treatment as a result of misguided and counter-productive post-Civil War “Reconstruction” efforts, McCain bested Obama by 38 points, compared to Bush’s dusting of Kerry by just over 21 points.
In many regions, both urban and rural, of the country, Obama did as well as, and frequently better than Kerry had done in 2004. But not in Oklahoma, generally. The easy conclusion would be that a great many Oklahomans have a particularly difficult time abiding the notion of a Black president. There is significant merit in that. However, I’ve concluded that Obama was hurt the most in Oklahoma because it was almost entirely uncontested except at some basic grassroots levels. For Obama to have avoided a 38-point loss in “Little Dixie” he would have needed to be in Oklahoma long enough to dampen the suspicions — for folks to verify that there really are no potruding horns. What about 2012, assuming Obama runs for re-election? On the one hand, a Democratic presidential candidate last carried Oklahoma 44 years ago. On the other hand, Oklahoma’s statehood movement was rooted in progressive thought. If Obama can help guide the nation and world through difficult economic and political times, I expect more Oklahomans will cast racial considerations aside and sing “You Are My Sunshine.” Such is not to imply that most McCain voters were motivated by race, only that many voters were not open to considering Obama from a distance.
UPDATE: It might be noteworthy to some that Bryan County in “Little Dixie” is the only county in the United States named for populist, three-time Democratic nominee and three time “loser” William Jennings Bryan, who was possessed of broad visions dampened by sometimes narrow perspectives.