Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)
The Great Assumption in Mississippi politics has long been that race is the lowest common denominator. For good or ill, it is undeniable that this assumption is the basis for how political campaigns are operated, for the crafting of political messaging, and for the evolution of the two-party system in the state since Reconstruction.
The century between the American Civil War in 1862 and the American civil rights struggle in 1962 saw a startling transformation of how the Democratic and Republican parties were defined. Over that century, Democrats moved from monolithic control of Mississippi to the current state of marginal influence.
The same century saw the Republican Party that once caused Mississippi whites to vow to “vote for a yellow dog” before they’d vote Republican embrace the GOP at the local, state and national level.
But is race still Mississippi’s lowest common political denominator? Clearly, it is an uncomfortable assumption on any number of levels and one that countless Mississippians have worked for decades to debunk, disprove or discredit.
So perhaps we look at the 2019 Mississippi general election as a measuring stick – a race in which Republican nominee Tate Reeves won 50 of the state’s 82 counties with an overall popular vote winning percentage of 52.1 percent to 46.7 percent for Democratic nominee Jim Hood (who carried 32 counties) and a combined 1.4 percent for independent David Singletary and Constitution Party candidate Bob Hickingbottom.
There are 26 Mississippi counties that have African American majorities. Democrat Hood won all 26 of those counties. Hood also carried two counties – Panola and Warren – that have African American populations of fractionally more than 49 percent. Hood won his home county of Chickasaw (black population of 44 percent).
Hood carried three other white majority counties including Lafayette and Oktibbeha – both of which are home to large universities and an inordinate number of young voters and both of which have tended in recent elections to be friendly to Democratic candidates.
The 32nd county that Hood carried was Madison County, a majority-white county with a strong 38 percent black population. Madison County is normally a reliable Top 15 Republican county in statewide elections but was the anomaly in this election.
Republican gubernatorial challenger Bill Waller ran strong in Madison County in the GOP primaries, more than doubling Reeves’ vote in the primary runoff 12,401 to 5,905. But Reeves was able to outperform Hood in his northeast Mississippi home territory while getting out the vote in the usual Republican strongholds.
Conversely, Hood’s inability to generate a needed exceptional turnout in the state’s majority Democratic areas was also critical to the 2019 gubernatorial outcome in Mississippi. The rest of the statewide Republicans put up even bigger winning percentages in dominating elections for the other seven statewide posts.
But is race the lowest common denominator in Mississippi politics? Unadulterated by opinion, the numbers suggest that for many Mississippians – black and white – voter behavior still is what it is. The level of racial mistrust that spills over into partisan mistrust remains high.
Perhaps there’s another answer. Hood was the latest Democrat – and certainly the most formidable statewide Democratic candidate in recent memory – who found it unwise to run in Mississippi as a national Democrat with the full, open support of national Democratic luminaries.
It’s convenient to blame race for the inability of Mississippi Democrats to be competitive in elections. But until state Democrats and national Democrats solve their identity crisis, it seems neither accurate not particularly productive to make that assumption.