The dream of a biracial progressive coalition supporting a southern African-American politician took another hit last night as Rep. Artur Davis was crushed by underdog primary opponent Ron Sparks in the Alabama Democratic gubernatorial primary. And so, for some who don't look too closely at the numbers, Davis joins the list along with Georgia's Andrew Young, North Carolina's Harvey Gantt and Tennessee's Harold Ford, of southern black candidates who couldn't get enough white votes to win.
Without exit polling, it's impossible to accurately break down racial patterns in yesterday's vote. But even a cursory look at the numbers shows that while Sparks did indeed wax Davis among white Democrats, he did exceptionally well among black Democrats as well. Moreover, Davis wasn't hurt by some dropoff in black turnout attributable to his refusal to pursue African-American endorsements or focus on that community and its issue priorities; indeed, in most parts of the state, black turnout seems to have held up relatively well as compared to the last statewide gubernatorial primary in 2006 (overall, Democratic turnout was down 31% from 2006). Sparks trounced Davis by winning votes, not by exploiting some fluke of racial turnout patterns.
That Sparks won something approaching half the African-American vote is evident from a look at Davis' own majority-black congressional district, the 7th. In Greene County, which according to 2008 Census data is 78% African-American, Sparks beat Davis by better than two-to-one, with turnout virtually unchanged from 2006. In Wilcox County, 72% black, Sparks won by better than three-to-one. Again, in sharp contrast to the state as a whole, turnout was essentially unchanged from 2006. Most symbolically, in Dallas County, whose county seat is Selma, and which is 68% black, Sparks won 55-45, and yet again, turnout was not at all down from 2006. And in the state's largest county, Jefferson (Birmingham), which is 41% black, Sparks won 58-42, with turnout down a relatively low 14% from 2006.
Undoubtedly turnout in the 7th was boosted by the highly competitive primary to choose a successor to Davis, but that did not help the incumbent. Davis' best county statewide was Mobile, 34% African-American, which he won 60-40, and even there the drop in turnout from 2006 was significantly lower than the statewide average.
Meanwhile, when you look at the heavily white northern Alabama counties thought of as Sparks Country, he did win big, but turnout was way down. In Marion County in northwest Alabama, 95% white, Sparks won 74%, but turnout was down 53% from 2006. In Cullman County, 97% white (and the home of the Folsom clan), Sparks won 78%, but turnout was down 55% from 2006. In Limestone County, 84% white, Sparks won 70%, but turnout was down 42% from 2006.
The more you look at the numbers, it's clear that Davis lost this primary by failing to have any real electoral base, demographically or geographically. And strange to say, the candidate who actually put together a pretty impressive biracial coalition was Ron Sparks.
UPDATE: In reading a Birmingham News story on the Alabama gubernatorial primary, it finally hit me that some observers think Davis lost not because they believe African-American turnout was down from 2006, but because it was down from the 2008 presidential primary in the state. Maybe I'm slow on the uptake, or maybe it really hadn't occurred to me that anyone would seriously expect African-American voters to turn out for Artur Davis like they did for Barack Obama, or that midterm and presidential primary turnout levels were comparable.
Since the burden of the post above is to suggest that Davis' problem was poor performance among black voters, not their turnout levels, the distinction is largely irrelevant, but the subject did lead me to look back at those 2008 presidential primary numbers, and a surprising discovery: in many of those heavily-black counties in the 7th congressional district of Alabama, turnout was actually higher yesterday than in 2008, in some cases much higher. In Sumter County, for example, turnout was 95% higher in 2010 than in 2008; in Greene County, it rose 44%. Overall turnout statewide was 40% higher in 2008 than yesterday, but a quick glance indicates the boost was mostly in the large urban areas. I'm sure African-American voters were a big, perhaps dominant, part of that story, but the patterns suggest that Obama's organization, not just his race, had a lot to do with that outcome.