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A Complex Poll for a Changing Nation

A Complex Poll for a Changing Nation

Four researchers are mapping the political genome of 21st century America

Todd Shields is a political scientist, and he claims to be boring. But then he leans forward in his seat and begins to talk about politics in the United States. He talks about serious gaps in knowledge and what he and his colleagues are learning through a poll that both covers familiar territory and asks questions that have not been asked before. He is intent and anything but boring. He pulls up maps and explains the “Republican L.” He talks about the end of Southern exceptionalism and the dearth of data about a region that can no longer be viewed as homogenous.

“Everything is happening here in the South,” he says, “and we’re not focused on it. It’s an afterthought. The South is changing, and we don’t have the data to understand the changes.”

He and his colleagues in the Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society – Pearl Ford Dowe, Angie Maxwell and Rafael Jimeno – decided to address the data gap by creating a complex polling instrument designed to get a clearer picture of the people who make up the nation as a whole, with particular emphasis on the South.

They designed a poll that would provide data about African Americans in the South, who have been under-represented in previous polling, and about Latinos in the South, who have not been represented at all in previous polling. They designed a poll with enough white respondents from the South and outside the South to clarify whether values and behaviors are Southern or features of 21st Century America.

The result, the Blair-Rockefeller Poll, is actually six powerful polls in one: the researchers have rich data for whites in the South and in the non-South, African-Americans in the South and in the non-South, and Latinos in the South and in the non-South. They have the data with the depth and complexity needed to begin to map the political genome of the United States.

In partnership with the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, they contracted with Knowledge Networks to conduct the poll in the weeks following the 2010 election. Knowledge Networks employs a methodology that has improved representation in survey samples of young adults, racial minorities, Hispanics, low-educated, and low-income households, and this method has proved particularly useful for understanding the South.

While hundreds of thousands of bits of data from 3,406 poll respondents is important, it is the analysis that makes it useful. In addition to their diverse and complementary scholarly backgrounds, the four Blair Center researchers bring enthusiasm for what they can learn about experiences, attitudes and opinions in the nation and the South. The knowledge they produce can further the understanding of political scientists and inform policymaking and political campaigns.

“The significance of this survey is difficult to overstate,” Shields says. “Given the general absence of accurate data on Southern politics and the attitudes and trends among minority groups, the Blair-Rockefeller Poll is a source of accurate information about Southern politics and policy, as well as the political and social attitudes of African Americans and Latinos.”

Immigration of Latino populations and the migration of African Americans back to the South are producing changes in the ethnic and racial composition of the region and of both the national and Southern electorate. One question for political scientists and politicians is what these changes will mean for elections and the power of the “Republican L.” Since World War II, the L-shaped swath of states from Montana south to Texas and across to the Atlantic have voted heavily Republican in presidential elections. Democrats win those elections only when they pick off some Southern states: With the help of Johnson in 1960, Kennedy took several southern states; Carter took the South overwhelmingly in 1976; Clinton picked up several Southern states in 1992 and 1996; and Obama won in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia in 2008.

For decades, the L-shaped swath of states in the Midwest and South has voted heavily Republican in presidential elections. Democrats win only when they pick off some Southern states.

One thing the researchers have learned is that today there is relatively little difference between the South and the country as a whole. Maxwell calls it the “Southernization of America.” Regionally and nationally, people share similar unemployment rates and views about the economy: 20.4 percent of Southerners and 20.3 percent of non-Southerners expect their personal financial situation to be worse in 2011 than in 2010. When it comes to the country as a whole, 35.9 percent of Southerners and 35.7 percent of those outside the South expect things to be worse or much worse.

Dowe also found that African Americans in the South and nationally hold similar views of politics and social issues.

“The data reveals that although African-Americans in the South identify as Southern, their opinions and experiences are often consistent with African-Americans throughout the nation,” she says.

She goes on to explain that African-Americans are not a monolithic group: “However, the identity of the group has been shaped by a unique culture and a group consciousness that developed due to exclusion and racism.  Regardless of status, gender or occupation, the group is still subject to addressing overt and structural racism daily, as the data reveals.  Southerners have expressed an increased satisfaction with life in comparison to non-Southern blacks; however, over 56 percent of Southern blacks and 58 percent of non-Southern blacks expressed that they experienced day-to-day discrimination.”

She notes that many African-Americans in the South are “new Southerners,” descendents of African-Americans who left the South in the 1920s, looking for opportunities in Northern cities. They see today’s South as a place of opportunity, and a large percentage are highly educated with above-average incomes.

So, does anything still distinguish the South from the rest of the nation? Yes, it’s religion, Maxwell finds.

“Demographically, religion and, specifically, one’s view of the Bible remain the key distinguishing factors between the South and the non-South,” Maxwell finds. Not only do 81.5 percent of Southerners identify with some Christian denomination, but also 41.4 percent agree that “the Bible is the actual Word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.” In contrast, 76.4 percent of non-Southerners describe themselves as Christian, and 31.5 percent are Biblical literalists.

Along with the ability to compare the South and the rest of the country, the Poll offers researchers data about Latinos’ opinions and voting habits and the ability to compare foreign-born and native-born Latinos.

“Nowhere like in the South can the dynamic nature of the Latino community be observed,” Jimeno says. “Because the South is a relatively new receiving area for Latino immigrants, the growing influence this community may come to exert is a promising area of inquiry.”

Using data from the Blair-Rockefeller Poll, Jimeno can begin to make a preliminary assessment of how Latinos see their fellow Americans. For example, the Poll asked respondents to place members of racial and ethnic groups on a scale of how hard-working these individuals seemed to them. While Latinos gave the lowest ratings to African-Americans, much of this was driven by the perceptions of immigrant Latinos.

“More recently arrived Latinos will invariably bring with them the biases extant in their homelands,” Jimeno says. “A process of acculturation will bring their opinions more in line with those of the native-born.”

Latinos seem to be aware of their own disadvantages, but not of the disadvantages African-Americans face. Over 42 percent responded that Latinos have less opportunity in life than white Americans. Yet, over 57 percent of Latinos stated that “Blacks have about the same opportunities in life as Anglos,” and fewer than 30 percent thought that African-Americans had less opportunity than whites. While African-Americans also rated themselves as the most disadvantaged group, more than 55 percent said that Latinos have less opportunity than whites.

Jimeno is interested in how Latinos understand their relationship with both their African-American and white neighbors. In particular, he wonders if they have a sense of “linked fate” with African-Americans.

Since 1995, when Michael C. Dawson published Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics, political scientists have used his theory of linked fate – a sense that what happens to one African-American has an impact on all — to examine, in Dawson’s words, “political unity that transcends class.” The civil rights movement is the classic example of a sense of linked fate operating among African-Americans.

While the theory “has been a rough fit in the Latino community,” Jimeno says, there have been signs that it can apply. There are factors that make having a sense of linked fate a complicated proposition for Latinos. For example, Latinos, who come from various countries, perceive each other to be quite different culturally, while recognizing certain structural commonalities. Unlike African-Americans in the South during the civil rights movement, Latinos are not equally disadvantaged; they do not all face Jim Crow discrimination.

For African-Americans, an appreciation of linked fate has been important to social progress from the civil rights movement through the push to elect African-American officials. The 1980s saw the campaigns of Jesse Jackson for president; Harold Washington’s election as mayor of Chicago; and Harvey Gantt, mayor of Charlotte, N.C., running twice for U.S. Senate.

There have been no extensive surveys of linked fate in recent years, and Dowe is curious about what linked fate looks like today. In addition to questions about economic status and sense of linked fate, the Poll asks questions about life experiences, such as “Have you received poorer service in public accommodations?” Taken together, the answers will offer insight into how closely connected African-Americans of different social classes feel to each other.

Understanding linked fate among Latinos and between Latinos and African-Americans, Jimeno says, “could determine how much Latinos mobilize in defense of rights and opportunities.”

There is so much more in the 2010 Blair-Rockefeller Poll, and this is only the beginning. The researchers plan a biennial poll, and with longitudinal data comes the ability to more completely plot the social and political genome of the nation.

Dowe is looking at questions of equity and support for or opposition to government involvement in housing and employment. She wants to know where the political center lies and how far to the right the center has moved in America today. In future polls, she’ll be looking at biracial identity and to what degree whiteness influences social and economic access and privilege.

Jimeno will continue to deepen his study of Latino linked fate and also analyze voting behavior. He is interested in how voting preference in the country of origin impacts Latino political involvement in the United States.

Maxwell wants to address a hole in political science research: “What is white linked fate and how does whiteness operate?”

Shields is interested in what will happen with the Republican L in 2012. Traditionally campaigns have been geared to middle-aged and older white voters. In 2008, the Obama campaign “picked off the Republican L” with a different strategy, targeting minorities and youth through social media.

In 2012 and beyond, the researchers want to work with data that gives a rich and complex view of American society and voters. They want the Blair-Rockefeller Poll to expand data on Latinos nationally and in the south and to extend the Poll to Asians and Native Americans.

As Shields says, “We want to be able to talk with accuracy about every voice.”


Christy Carpenter, Chief Executive Officer, Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, University of Arkansas System

Christy Carpenter“As a center for thought leadership, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute is very pleased to partner with the Blair Center on this effort to get a deeper understanding of voters, nationally and regionally, and to share that knowledge with the widest possible audience.  The partnership is a perfect blend of resources, combining the Blair Center’s impressive faculty with the Institute’s convening power and outstanding conference facilities.”

Blair-Rockefeller Poll Methodology

Conducted by Knowledge Networks between November 19 and 30, the 2010 Blair-Rockefeller Poll included a total sample of 3,406 individuals who were 18 years and older.  This included 1,649 White, Non-Hispanic respondents, 825 African Americans and 932 Hispanic Latinos. In regional terms there were 1,689 respondents living in the South and 1,717 respondents living in the non-South. The survey was conducted in both English and Spanish.

Knowledge Networks uses an Internet-based survey methodology that overcomes the digital divide, which is particularly pronounced in parts of the American South, by including representation of the roughly 30 percent of U.S. households without Internet access and the 23 percent of households that use only cell phones.

Photos by Russell Cothren

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