The Emerging Mississippi: Are New Voters Changing State Politics?

Photos by Kenya Hudson

When presidential hopeful Barack Obama entered the Rose Embley McCoy building at Jackson State University on March 10, he flowed easily into the hungry arms of the crowd. At least 100 young people—mostly females—pressed against the metal barricades, screaming and crying to shake his hand, crushing hapless reporters who had the misfortune of already standing at the barricade.

Obama reached out to the crowd—which was the overflow from his scheduled speech in the Lee E. Williams Athletics and Assembly Center—with the ease of plucking an apple, extending a lint-free suit sleeve hiding his broomstick arms, embracing, shaking hands, taking a foolish shoulder jab and a "good job" from a man in the crowd eager to display man-love without surrendering any manhood.

The Illinois Democratic senator visited the spill-over crowd first, before moving to the 8,500 waiting in the main venue, and exited amid a lighting storm of camera flashes and electronic clicks of cell-phone cameras, and desperate demands to "turn around," and "look over here!"

When Obama addressed the crowd, the audience hung on his every word. A man on the second row in the spill-over room, Winston Moore, of Vicksburg, giggled like a child at most of Obama's wry statements, like they'd come from the mouth of Dave Chapelle.

Sure, Obama was preaching to his own choir, but this amount of passion hadn't engulfed supporters at the earlier Hillary Clinton event in Canton. The crowd loved this guy. They wanted to jump behind him, to protect him.

"What kind of question is that?" demanded one man when I asked if he would take a bullet for Obama.

"Well, would you? Think about it."

The young man, probably in his early 20s, was clearly feeling his passion coming on.

"I might. Yeah. If I had to. Sh*t, I'd jump in front of him before (jumping in front of) Bush."

Anything But Cold
The overflow crowd said it all, really. Obama's rival, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, the wife of a monumentally popular president from the 1990s—whom Toni Morrison had dubbed the nation's "first black president"—had drawn a crowd of about 2,500 to a rodeo barn on the outskirts of the city one week earlier. The Mississippi Democratic Party had largely organized that effort, an annual fund-raising event sponsored by the state party.

But Obama arrived at JSU mostly by his own devices, with a minimum of local party support, and still attracted a crowd of about 9,000 cheering, screaming fanatics.

The Rose Embley McCoy Auditorium contained the 1,000 or so surplus from the massive crowd who couldn't get in to hear his speech live—figuratively speaking, they were the leftovers, but they were anything but cold.

Jackson resident Willie Simpson, easily over 50, with a scraggly gray beard and darting eyes, stood with the rest of the mostly black crowd during the Pledge of Allegiance.

I asked him later how often he'd done that in the past.

"How many times have I pledged allegiance?" he returns, sizing me up with a wary look.

"That's the question," I reply. "I mean, how many times have you done it and really felt it? Seriously."

He shakes his head, defeated. "I really don't think I've put my hand on my chest, and meant it, since third grade."

Simpson is not alone. National pride, according to at least three different confessions from other crowd members, seems to be a feeling with whom more than a few are unfamiliar.

Take Latosha Lee. She's not even 20, yet. Never been kicked off a water fountain or pushed to the back of a public transit vehicle in her life. But she freely admits her prior indifference to the whole "government thing."

"I only registered to vote late last year," Lee said, explaining that she's registered to vote in Chicago and already voted by absentee ballot this year.

Now, though, Lee shares the passion that clearly prevailed on primary day. By 8 p.m., on March 11, it was clear that in most every precinct in the state of Mississippi that people had flooded the polls, especially on the Democratic side.

Fledgling Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, even after watching voting numbers explode in other state primaries leading up to the Mississippi vote, inexplicably had declared the day before in a press conference that he expected a "low to moderate" turnout for the primaries, between 125,000 and 150,000 total for both parties.

Hosemann may have based his numbers upon the 2004 presidential primary, which drew roughly 100,000 voters, but Hosemann did not return calls to the Jackson Free Press for an explanation, so there's no telling for sure.

The numbers turning out to vote for Clinton or Obama in Mississippi are striking. This is the first time a primary in the state has had any real significance in years. In 2004, Democrats and Republicans had already chosen their nominees by the time the primaries rolled around to Mississippi in March.

In 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry drew about 75,000 primary votes all over the state. Kerry netted a little more than 9,000 votes in Democratic-leaning Hinds County. This year, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton also drew about 9,000 in Hinds County. No big deal there. If Hosemann had been making estimates based on 2004 figures, he was accurate as far as Clinton's local turnout went.

But then came Obama's numbers. The black candidate snatched a landslide of almost 40,000 votes in Hinds County alone. Obama's numbers, by themselves, amounted to 255,809 votes from the entire state. Clinton fared better than Kerry outside Hinds County, doubling Kerry's 2004 figures and landing 155,680 votes statewide. Republican presidential nominee John McCain, whose primary fight was over last month, brought in a lackluster 113,000 votes, not even passing the loser on the Democratic ticket.

Voters surpassed expectations almost three times over in this primary, leaving many politicos stunned.

"I was astounded and very elated at the numbers that came out for the primary," said Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Dowdy.

"I knew that there would be more of a turnout than what the secretary of state was predicting, and I said publicly that (Hosemann) would be shown to be wrong, but frankly I did not expect to see the 400,000-plus voters in this primary."

More than 30 percent of registered voters came out for a primary election, despite the fact that one party had already nailed down its victor. In total, roughly 420,000 voters cast a vote on the Dem side of the ticket, while Republicans tossed in about 145,000 votes for a total of 565,000 votes in all. The number rivaled the roughly 600,000 who voted in the general election of 2006, and wasn't that far away from the highly contested 2003 election pitting Republican challenger Haley Barbour against Democratic incumbent Ronnie Musgrove, which drew about 850,000 voters that year.

The numbers even slammed the state's turnout figures during the very popular campaign of the country's first "black" president. Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign—when he was at the height of his popularity—garnered fewer than 200,000 votes from Mississippians.

The Biloxi Sun-Herald reports that DeSoto County, the recent destination of white affluents fleeing the blackening city of Memphis (and one of the few counties where Republican voters outnumbered Democrats in the 2008 primary), suffered a shortage of ballots.

Workers had to print more ballots after running out at 10 a.m. Hosemann told the Sun-Herald that no more than 1,000 Democrats had ever voted in DeSoto. This year, the party netted 8,079 Democrat voters.

Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson said Hosemann should not have been surprised.

"Any student of politics knows that there wasn't a contested election four years ago," Johnson said.

"The increase should have been expected considering the fact that there was a highly contested presidential primary, where, for the first time in recent history, Mississippi was able to play a pivotal role in the outcome of the Democratic nominee for president. In addition to that, you had two open congressional seats that were both contested, which generates additional voters to the polls. The First Congressional District, in particular, gets attention because it is believed that the Democrat side has a high probability to win that seat."

Obama and African Americans
Race appeared to determine who supported whom in the state Democratic primary. A March 11 CNN exit poll found that 70 percent of white Democrats voted for Clinton, while 91 percent of black Dems voted for Obama. Also of note, 23 percent of white Dems supported Obama, but only 9 percent of black Dems supported Clinton. Interestingly, only 9 percent of voters considered race "most important," in their decision-making, and 67 percent said race was "not important."

But race is important, despite any poll-side confession. Latosha Lee, who is black, had effectively summed up much of the reason behind Obama's stalwart black support in Mississippi, when she said: "Elections didn't mean anything to me before Barack. Elections didn't include me."

By "me" Lee meant "us," which she later explained stood for "blacks." That sudden feeling of inclusion, according to other crowd testimony, was the gasoline fueling much of the passion burning bright at Jackson State on March 10.

Until very recently, the face of the president was a ghostly countenance with gray hairs and virtually no lips to speak of. There was the occasional Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, but those flames petered out early in the process with few people taking them seriously. Their campaigns amounted to a picturesque charge at a windmill—a gesture fashioned only to make a statement. It wasn't real.

Of course, blacks had always been free to support a paleface fashioned to be the nation's first black president. But up until Obama, the most outspoken avatar of blacks in the White House had been a white governor from Arkansas.

Obama—now endorsed by Toni Morrison to be the nation's first real black president—is no Bill Clinton, but he's no Al Sharpton, either.

Even right-wing TV entertainer Bill O'Reilly calls Obama "whip-smart." Obama's gestures are toned down, he's not prone to quick, brash movements, and—so far—he hasn't fallen victim to foot-in-mouth syndrome. The mainstream is taking him seriously, and his fans find this validation invigorating.

"He's intelligent. He's articulate. I trust him to hire smart people who have the experience," said Winston Moore, after a reporter's challenge to Obama's scant political experience. The senator is only a first-term national official, after all, but Obama fans squelch reference to his short resumé by pointing out that the George W. Bush had experience and still loused things up.

Kenneth Grigsby, president of the Mississippi Young Democrats, said this young support may not all be about black pride. There are similarities between Clinton and Obama that may make them indistinguishable to the typical voter, who has only moderate knowledge of the candidates.

Seeing no overt difference, the voter may simply pick the person to whom they physically relate, he said.

"The two do share some characteristics, in terms of their politics. Both want expanded health care, both want to rein in the costs of the Iraq War, and both want to make college more affordable. Though they may have some differences in opinion on how they want to do these things, many people haven't studied enough on them to see that difference," Grigsby said.

"I would hope that whoever the Democratic nominee is, (voters) will circle their wagons around (him or her)."

Obama's Coming for Your Kids
Though both Democratic candidate platforms appear to be musically in sync with young voters, Obama's face and charisma seem to be doing a better job of carrying the tune. It's the old 1950s argument of the satanic temptations of rock ‘n' roll revisited: There goes that devil music straight out of the black juke joints tempting the kids into a life of lasciviousness and bad behavior.

JSU student body president Andrell Harris said Obama's successful retention of nearly every black voter going to the polls in Mississippi on a record turn-out day speaks to Clinton's inability to seduce new voters, many of whom happen to be young, as well as black.

"Clinton isn't really putting out anything. She's saying that she voted for things that she hoped didn't pass, while Obama's putting out views we can relate to. He's talking more effectively about reducing college tuition, improving health care, and that's what we're looking for," Harris said, adding that Obama effectively portrays himself as more "genuine."

"Obama is more believable. I think Hillary Clinton has a deviant side. Young people can tell when someone is truthful, and she doesn't come off as someone who is true," he said.

Grigsby, while not endorsing either primary candidate, said the youth vote did turn out in droves thanks, in part, to Obama. "Someone told me that youth voting was up 70 percent, which is not surprising, considering all the excitement over the election," Grigsby said. "These two candidates had actually solicited their vote. They've addressed many of the issues that young voters are interested in, whether it's the Iraq War, college tuition costs or the mortgage crisis. Those issues resonate with young voters."

Johnson said the NAACP and other agencies worked overtime this past year trying to convince young voters to register in time for the elections.

"I believe we registered 15,000 people to vote statewide," Johnson said. "We worked quietly, and we worked efficiently. That's the way you do that."

The NAACP's efforts may not have gone completely unnoticed, however. On Feb. 15, Hosemann, a Republican, released a press statement urging state residents to be cautious about working with door-to-door voter registration zealots.

"It has come to the attention of the Secretary of State's office (that) organizations are going door-to-door soliciting people to vote, using mail-in forms, and saying to citizens they are endorsed by the Secretary of State's office. While we encourage citizens to vote, the Secretary of State does not endorse these organizations," Hosemann stated.

"Your best bet is to visit your circuit clerk's office to register to vote. This will ensure your voter registration card is filled out correctly—without mistakes and with privacy."

Johnson called the statement a scare tactic to discourage registration, and said mail-in registration worked just fine, judging by results. He added that the NAACP campaign was largely unhurt by the secretary of state mail-out.

Rise of the Rug Rats
Johnson also pointed out that the comparatively poor Republican showing was not a reliable indicator of the upcoming fight in November. Republican voters, he said, would appear in greater numbers with something to fight for in November. But Grigsby said November could see a bolstering of Democrat power, as well, despite increased Republican turnout. The Democrat/Republican imbalance in the primary, he said, wasn't just limited to good timing. Young people came out and stomped around big time on March 11, and they likely wouldn't be dying of old age by November.

"Many of these voters putting down their ballots in this primary were new voters, plenty of them under 35. It was a windfall. People are tired of the same old system, and they see hope in the two new candidates," Grigsby said, estimating that a similar windfall in November could change the political landscape of the whole state.

Mississippi routinely falls into the Republicans' corner, with the state carrying President George Bush over Sen. John Kerry with more than 60 percent of the vote in 2004. Texas Gov. George Bush beat former U.S. Vice President Al Gore with 58 percent of the Mississippi vote in 2000.

However, Mississippi was already seeing a growth trend in the younger voting population that was surpassing the national average in 2004, with 18-to-29 year-olds comprising 20 percent of the state vote. And, unnoticed by the state's other media, the rancorous youth of this extremely red state also ducked the will of their elders by giving more support to Kerry in the 2004 election than any other southern state, preferring Kerry over Bush 63-to-37 percent in 2004 according to CNN exit polls. (The majority of the below-30 set in other southern states only preferred Kerry by 52 percent over Bush's 48 percent.)

That trend suggests the Republican stranglehold on Mississippi was already in trouble in 2004, even as Bush was knocking the state into his corner pocket.

"If the trend stays like it is in November, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans at the polls, the state might actually carry a Democratic candidate to the White House, ... and could even put (former Gov. Ronnie) Musgrove in the District 1 congressional seat," former Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. told WAPT News Channel 16 on the night of the election, possibly forcing his conservative political analyst companion Matt Friedman to fight off a convulsion.

"The flame across the country has caught hold in Mississippi with thousands of new voters registered statewide by the primary cutoff date. People are excited by this primary," Johnson said in a later interview.

Johnson admitted that Republicans had less reason to come out with no primary fight, but warned that Democratic demography will continue to grow until November.

"We need to remember that people certainly won't stop registering to vote between now and November. If anything, the number of people registering to vote will grow even more significantly after the Democratic primary is over," he said.

There is little question that new voters had an impact in Hinds County.

"When I looked at the number of new registered voters, I was astonished," said Hinds County District 4 Election Commissioner Connie Cochran.

In 2007, as primary elections all over the country began generating potential candidates, Hinds County recorded 1,896 new registered voters. However, as the sunny-jim smile of Barack Obama began to take the stage as the top most likely Democratic candidate in 2008, the number of new registered voters in Hinds County more than tripled.

"Between the beginning of January and Feb. 9—the deadline for registered voters to be able to participate in the primaries—the county registered 7,425 new voters," Cochran said. "I've never seen numbers like this before. Four full-time workers sat there day in and day out trying to process it all."

The Crossover Factor
Some Democrats, and a few Republicans, say GOP numbers may have added their voices to the expanding crowd of Democratic voters in the primary. The Republican nominee was already in the pocket, after all, leaving many conservative voters free to tinker with the other team's primary.

National talk-show host Rush Limbaugh even encouraged his listeners to tamper with Democratic primaries. "Do you think Democrats didn't have any impact on the Republican primary (which gave us McCain)? Do you really think that?" Limbaugh told dedicated dittoheads earlier this month.

Limbaugh has long considered McCain a horrifying moderate, and claims he could not have carried the nomination as easily without some Democratic input. Still, Limbaugh—and national polls, for that matter—suggest that McCain would have a more difficult fight against Obama than Clinton, so Limbaugh wants to throw every advantage to McCain, despite his initial enmity toward the Republican candidate.

Limbaugh took responsibility for Clinton's initial small success March 4 where she initially walked away with 65 Texas delegates, while Obama took 61. However in the long haul, both Limbaugh and Clinton fell short in Texas. Once the caucus results came in last week, Obama ended up taking 99 Texas delegates to 94 for Clinton. Along with CNN's analysis of Texas superdelegate endorsements, Obama would end up with 109 delegates to 106 for the candidate that Limbaugh tried to ensure would run against McCain in November.

CNN exit polls suggest Clinton may have had some success from voters who have no love for her. Fifty-seven percent of Mississippi voters who voted for Clinton have a favorable opinion of McCain, while only 37 percent of Obama voters had a favorable opinion of the Republican opponent.

A higher percentage of her voters here also don't trust her, according to the same exit poll. Twenty-three percent of voters supporting her seem to think she's untrustworthy, while 8 percent of Obama voters feel he is untrustworthy.

The exit poll showed that 12 percent of voters voting in the Democratic primary identified themselves as Republican. Of those, 75 percent favored Clinton, to Obama's 25 percent. Seventy-one percent of voters identified themselves as Democrats. Of that 71 percent, 30 percent supported Clinton, while 67 percent went with Obama.

Strangely, 13 percent of the people voting for Clinton said they would be satisfied if she did not win the nomination, suggesting a Republican sabotage attempt.

Obama's voters seemed to be a little more in line with their primary candidate, with only 4 percent of them happy if Obama didn't win it.

Clinton showed a clear advantage in some Republican districts. DeSoto was one of 14 counties where Clinton prevailed over Obama—who got 19 of the state's 33 delegates. (There are also still seven superdelegates in play.) DeSoto County voters gave Clinton 4,410 votes to Obama's 3,669.

But polls show many Republicans were busy voting for members of their own party. Republicans had their own moderate turnout in 2008 compared to the 2000 primary, where Bush garnered about 100,000 votes from Mississippians.

Republicans cast more than 136,000 votes for a combination of McCain, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul. Many Republicans had good reason to vote in their own primary, with contested elections in Congressional Districts 1 and 3.

Crossover Republicans in both districts paid a price. They now cannot vote in the Republican run-offs in those races on April 1.

Southern Strategy RIP?
Crossover votes aside, Republicans have noticed the other team's numbers, and are getting nervous. This could mean a change to the same old system they've been cultivating since Nixon carpet-bagged down to the state with the Southern Strategy of the 1970s, with the help of some new, young Republicans on the ground here, like Haley Barbour.

With its generous black population (and a growing progressive voter base of all races) invigorated by hope and audacity, Mississippi could completely reverse the gains the Republican Party made as white Democrats responded to coded (and not-so-coded) racist messages and fled the increasingly mixed Democratic Party for the one-race prospects of the GOP. The national Republican Party recently apologized for using the race-based "Southern Strategy" to play divisive politics in order to get bigoted votes.

"Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization," then-Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said at the convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 2005. "I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."

The racist strategy may have been wrong, but it hasn't stopped it from being a favored tool here in Mississippi—whether with Barbour's 2003 attacks on Gov. Ronnie Musgrove for "attacking our flag" to his and others' courting of the Council of Conservative Citizens to GOP political operatives who walk around the Neshoba County Fair with pictures of white Democratic candidates on signs next to Rep. Charles Rangel and Rep. Bennie Thompson—both black, of course.

Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman and master of the Southern Strategy, no doubt has seen the encroaching post-racial storm in his own state and is already on the attack, even though the Republican primary is already bundled up behind McCain. Barbour made every effort in a Sun-Herald article to alienate Obama from state voters using tired, hackneyed rhetoric.

"Sen. Obama has the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate. That means he's to the left of Hillary Clinton, he's to the left of Ted Kennedy, he's to the left of Bernie Sanders, who runs for senator as a Socialist. I mean, he's to the left of the Socialists," Barbour said to the newspaper.

"While he's charismatic, a very attractive candidate, he's got a record, and the record is very out of sync with the views of the majority of Americans, much less the majority of Mississippians."

Such repeated use of the L-word—a word that has long been race-soaked in a state where "liberal" described any opponent of segregation as recently as the 1960s and 1970s—would have shivered the timbers of former 3rd District Rep. Ronnie Shows. Shows, like many Mississippi Democrats, quavered at the thought of being called a liberal, but failed to out-conservative Republican challenger Chip Pickering in the 2002 congressional election.

Even former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, now running for District 1, preferred the title "independent Democrat" over "liberal" in his failed 2004 re-election bid against Barbour.

The line of yellow dogs doesn't stop there. Gubernatorial candidate and dedicated Bible-thumper John Arthur Eaves Jr., tried to duck the liberal tag as much as possible last November. Eaves was mocked as he depicted himself as the most religious candidate, telling voters to vote their conscience and kick the moneychangers (i.e. Barbour and his financial supporters) out of office. Eaves' conservative posturing, anti-abortion stance and all, met considerable failure in Mississippi.

Obama, on the other hand, makes no bones about his less-than-conservative standing, and enjoyed many more votes than Eaves even in Republican-swinging DeSoto County—not to mention the earth-shattering turnout in Hinds County.

"In Mississippi, when 25 percent of the vote goes Obama, that ain't chicken feed," said Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute at Mississippi State University. "In some other southern states his white support was up in the 40s. This may signal the beginning of the end of the Southern Strategy's ability to deliver."

Barbour's hurling of the liberal tag will hold little water among black voters, who are immune to the southern strategy and who overwhelmingly supported Obama in the March 11 primary according to exit polls.

But time and reality are chipping away at the white following of the scheme as well, Wiseman said.

"Economics has a lot to do with it," he said. "Take the Democrats' push for universal health care. Right now people are reaching the point where they're saying, ‘we don't care what you call it, universal health care, socialized medicine, whatever—we want it, because we're scared, and we'll vote for somebody who appears to have a solution to alleviate our problem."

Political writer Jere Nash said the chances of Mississippi going Democratic in the national election could be a prospect in the future, but not likely this year.

"It wouldn't surprise me if Mississippi and a few other southern states were the only ones voting for John McCain in November. It's going to take a long time for the trends propelling Barack Obama to reach down to the Deep South. People here vote culture before voting economics or education," Nash said in an interview.

Nash pointed out that the number of voters pushing Bush in 2004 still surpassed the 400,000-plus voters backing Democrats in this year's primaries.

"What we saw on March 11 was the top end of who will vote Democrat in the general election. I just don't think there will be more than 400,000 people who will vote Democrat in the general election. But we know there are at least 700,000 who will vote on the Republican ticket based on the 2004 general election," Nash said.

Still, Wiseman said that even the Republican Party knows it's shrinking as time chips away at its aging supporters, and younger more progressive voters start to take their place.

"They're realizing that it's getting increasingly difficult to win an election every time with just the upper-middle income white demographic. It just won't work much longer," Wiseman said.

It's About Turnout, Stupid!
The Issues 2008

Previous Comments


On Bill Maher's HBO show last time he mentioned a possible McCain/Condoleezza ticket. Is there a thread somewhere about that? http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080225/howl2


If Condi was the VP pick, that would definitely make things juicier than they already are. She's black and a woman. However, wouldn't it just look like the GOP is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of independent voters? It would be like they're screaming, "Hey, look over here! We're making history too!" I have respect for Dr. Rice, but I don't want a VP that will help keep the Iraq War going.


Yes, and she might have some skeletons, too. And then there's that oil tanker named after her. And the shoe-shopping during Katrina. Not to mention, her blind devotion to Bush and the Iraq War.


I knew there was something about shoes, but I couldn't remember what it was!


She has said she's not interested, if I recall right.



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