JACKSON – In 2008, Barack Obama got almost 124,000 votes more than Haley Barbour did in 2007.
Yet, Barbour won re-election as Mississippi’s governor in 2007 by a landslide of 57.9 percent to 42.1 percent against Jackson attorney and first-time candidate John Arthur Eaves Jr. On the other hand, Obama, despite receiving roughly one-quarter more votes than Barbour, lost Mississippi to John McCain, who garnered 56.2 percent.
Mississippians traditionally turn out in greater numbers to vote for president than for governor. But the 2008 election turnout in Mississippi was a record. The conventional wisdom is that record turnout was caused by Obama being on the ballot.
Obama received about 96,500 more votes than fellow Democrat John Kerry did in Mississippi in 2004. McCain had 39,600 votes more than fellow Republican George Bush captured against Kerry.
It is probably safe to assume that more Mississippians than usual went to the polls in 2008 to vote both for and against Obama.
This November, Mississippians will return to the polls to elect a governor to succeed Barbour. The two major party candidates are Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, the Republican nominee, and Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, the Democratic nominee and the first black to win a major party nomination for governor of Mississippi since Reconstruction.
The election paints some interesting scenarios. Bryant, like most statewide Republican candidates in Mississippi, is the heavy favorite. But will Democratic voters, presumably many of them black, turn out like they did for Obama? If that occurs and the Republican turnout is in the range of past gubernatorial elections – and not presidential contests – DuPree could register a historic upset.
Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State, said issues other than race could increase Democratic turnout. Chief among those is the perception by some that Republicans would not be as likely to protect state retirement system benefits. If that becomes an issue, it could be huge, Wiseman said, because the retirement system not only covers state employees, but also local employees, including firefighters and law enforcement, and school personnel, including teachers.
“You have two or three issues that could ratchet up turnout, not to mention the African-American vote that is normally pretty anemic, but now you have an African-American major party nominee for governor for the first time in anybody’s lifetime,” Wiseman said.
Still, the political scientist said, “For DuPree to have a chance, the Republicans will have to sleepwalk through this.”
Wiseman said he doubts DuPree will have the resources to get his message out. But he admitted he also did not think DuPree would defeat the better-financed Bill Luckett of Clarksdale in the Democratic runoff Tuesday.
“I have been wrong all along,” Wiseman admitted.
DuPree, who has exceeded the expectations of Wiseman and many others, has run a race-neutral campaign. He does not bring up race, but said after his runoff victory, in response to a question, that he was proud to be black but said, “I want to highlight I have the experience we need in Mississippi to move forward.”
Still, it is obvious that DuPree got strong black support in defeating Luckett. That by itself won’t be enough in November.
Blacks make up 35 percent of the state’s voting-age population. But Wiseman and others estimate that their vote totals are normally depressed because a large percentage of African-Americans are in poverty and studies reveal that people – regardless of ethnicity – with less income and less education are less inclined to vote.
While an apparent record number of black Mississippians came out to vote for Obama in 2008, exit polls cited by both CNN and the New York Times estimated that only 11 percent of the state’s white electorate voted for Obama.
Jere Nash, a Democratic consultant and Clarion-Ledger blogger, disputed those figures. He pointed out Obama got more than 20 percent in counties such as Tishomingo, Itawamba and Hancock, where the white population is more than 90 percent and also outperformed Kerry in many other largely white counties. Nash estimated white support for Obama at as much as 23 percent.
Whether that would be enough to put DuPree over the top depends on who turns out on Nov. 8.
Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau