Eric Oliver on the “Bigot Belt”

Eric Oliver is a colleague of mine at the University of Chicago. He is the author of the absolutely fantastic book Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic.

He has some new and interesting insights on the “Bigot Belt,” which he has generously written up for the Freakonomics blog.

The Bigot Belt
By Eric Oliver
A Guest Post

Like many people, I was fascinated by a map recently published by The New York Times illustrating the shifting vote margins between the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections.

Of particular note was the broad swath of counties running from Oklahoma and East Texas through Arkansas to Kentucky and West Virginia where the Republican vote margins actually increased from 2004. How, in an election year so dominated by Democrats, did these counties go from merely “red” to “scarlet”?

The immediate answer to this question seems to be race. “The Deep South still resonates with negative feelings about the race of President-elect Barack Obama,” wrote Adam Nossiter in The Times, quoting various locals of Vernon, Ala., who expressed fear of having a black man “over” them. The implication is that in any place where the Republican vote margin increased, whites are more racially intolerant.

Such a conclusion is premature. Drawing inferences about individual behavior from aggregate data is a classic example of what statisticians call an “ecological fallacy.” In other words, looking at county election returns, it is simply impossible to tell whether McCain voters in Independence County, Ark. (where the Republican margin increased by 23 percentage points), are any more or less racist than McCain supporters in Door County, Wis. (where the margin swung 20 points toward the Democrats).

Nor can county election returns explain why whites in the South are more threatened by a black president than whites in the North. Perhaps race wasn’t a factor at all. Many “scarlet” counties are in regions heavily dependent on the oil and coal industries, and the voting shifts might have been triggered by the Republican mantra of “drill, baby, drill.”

To differentiate between these explanations, we need to identify what is distinctive about “scarlet” counties. This may not tell us about the motivations of any individual resident, but it can give us some hints about why the “scarlet” counties zigged while the rest of the country zagged.

Based on census data, “scarlet” counties were poorer, less educated, more rural, and had higher unemployment than the national average. For example, in “scarlet” counties only 13 percent of adults hold a college degree, on average, compared to 17 percent for the “azure” counties (where Democratic margins increased). Seventy-three percent of the “scarlet” counties are rural, compared to 59 percent of “azure” counties.

If we think that poverty, low education, and rural residence underlie white racial animosity, then the race hypothesis might have some support (although “scarlet” counties also have a higher percentage working in the mining industry).

Interestingly though, the “scarlet” counties are not older or more white; their populations average about 85 percent white and 15 percent over age 65 — rates nearly identical to the national county averages.

If race is so important for explaining these voting trends, then how do we make sense of these last findings?

The answer comes in looking at both the county and the state together. One of the biggest demographic differences between “scarlet” and “azure” counties is the racial composition of the state population: 72 percent of the “scarlet” counties are in states that are over 10 percent black compared to only 49 percent of the “azure” counties. In a multivariate regression analysis using all the variables listed above, the best predictor of a county’s Republican vote margin is its white racial percentage relative to its state’s black population size. In other words, the counties where Republican margins grew the largest tended to be predominantly white places in otherwise racially mixed states.

These patterns are consistent with research on individual racial attitudes. Historically, the greatest levels of racial violence occurred within white enclaves near larger black populations, particularly when these enclaves are poor and uneducated. Even today, whites who live in poor, racially segregated neighborhoods within more diverse metropolitan areas tend to be more racially hostile than whites who live in either integrated neighborhoods or within largely white regions. In more diverse settings, locally segregated whites have less contact with nearby minorities yet also feel greater competition for jobs and public goods. The combination of both increased racial competition and racial isolation seems to be a recipe for generating racial animosity.

The same thing may be happening in the “scarlet” counties. Racially isolated whites in Arkansas or Alabama may have been more afraid of voting for Obama not because they are more racist than white voters in Minnesota or Montana, but because they perceive greater racial competition with nearby black populations.

Of course, this pattern does not account for all the vote shifts. There were plenty of counties in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia that went “scarlet” even though the black populations of these states are relatively small (here, lower education levels and higher white poverty may be at work).

Nevertheless, these results should dispel the idea that with the election of Obama, America has somehow “transcended” race. Undoubtedly, racism is still pervasive in the United States, but where it appears depends a lot on social context.


So, if you didn't vote Democrat, you're possibly racist? Why is voting based on conservative ideas racist? Is it possible to not agree with the policy positions of the candidates and the party's platform without it being linked to race?


Fascinating, a very clever analysis.


Too bad that people keep thinking that President Elect Obama is black. He's clearly not.

Mike B

I think someone who is afraid to vote for a candidate because they perceive greater "racial competition" with nearby ethnic populations meets the definition of being a racist.


@1. That is not what the article implied.


Que, this article isn't about people who didn't vote Democrat, but about people who voted Democrat in 2004 but Republican in 2008. What's being said is that if you voted for Kerry in 2004 but you voted for McCain in 2008, THEN you're possibly racist ;-)


Consider another way of looking at it:

Perhaps members of a relative minority (islands of whites) have reason to fear the tyranny of the majority more than those who live in more homogeneous circumstances.

And perhaps the correlation is not with their skin color. 95% of blacks voted for Obama, but whites are the racists????


Is it just me, or does the fact that Obama held 90% of the black vote indicate more clearly that there are still significant racial issues. This seems a lot more transparent than this analysis of racist Whites.

Also, would this analysis follow for black voters? Do we see that black populations that are bordering white populations vote more favorably for Obama than those that are in integrated neighborhoods?


@Que Did you even read the article!? It's like you copy pasted a conservative stock defense.


The article doesn't argue that to vote for mccain is a vote for racism. The question is rather, why would some areas have a larger margin for voting republican when the rest of the country did in fact shift to vote democrat.

I.E. Why would the Obama brand not only not sell as well in some areas as McCain, but rather, why would the Obama brand not sell so well compared to Kerry? The comparison isn't with McCain, but rather Kerry.

While there are some policy differences between Obama and Kerry (and the worries are diff in 2004 vs now), the implication is that the key difference was the color of their skin.

I am still not quite convinced, but this does go a long way to show some real insight, both in elections, and race relations.


I'm not sure how this analysis overcomes the ecological fallacy.

Mark B

#3 "Too bad that people keep thinking that President Elect Obama is black. He's clearly not."

He is blacker than Bush


@9. In what way was that a "conservative stock defense?"


Even though black people voted 95% for Obama, in the past they've voted about 85% for Democrats. So the shift is not as dramatic as it sounds.


@11 - good catch. It doesn't.

Also: " In a multivariate regression analysis using all the variables listed above, the best predictor of a county's Republican vote margin is its white racial percentage relative to its state's black population size."

Are you really saying you regressed the margin on white PERCENTAGE and black SIZE? You're comparing apples to oranges, adding the additional variable of state/county population, and that destroys the credibility of this evidence (if you needed to mix input types to find a significant relationship).

Or it may just be poor sentance construction.


#1 overstated the case but there is a grain of truth there.

The crucial sentence is the following: "[i]f race is so important for explaining these voting trends, then how do we make sense of these last findings?"

You are not considering that race may not be a factor. If you condition the entire analysis on race being a factor, you can surely find some statistic to support that. Then you can argue and maybe find some corroborating evidence to support that statistic. However, at the end, you are still left with your original presumption.

I am admittedly no expert and maybe your conclusion is still correct but the analysis seems somewhat suspect.


Nate Silver has a commentary related to this issue:

Basically any post-election analysis of voting patterns must take into account *where Obama campaigned*. How do rural counties in Virginia or North Carolina (which saw an intense Obama campaign, including several candidate visits) compare with comparable counties in say, Alabama or Arkansas?


Racism is, was and probably always will be. And, it is not unilateral white vs. whatever.

However it is well known that data can and will be interpreted passing through the bias of the experimenter/data collector.

If you look hard enough for something you expect to find you will eventually find it.

The conclusions, in and of themselves, are possibly suggestive but hardly conclusive of bigotry.


Gore won 90% of the black vote in 2000, Kerry 88% in 2004.

Consider this when reflexively assuming that blacks voting for Obama are racist.

It appears casually they are minorly racist given the data, obviously less so than Red -> Scarlet areas mentioned within the article.


this article overlooks reverse racism- perhaps the blacks in the aformentioned regions didn't vote for Obama because his mother is white