The paradoxes of Mississippi politics

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In much the same way Mississippi politics has often been characterized as a process of the masses voting against their own interests. Indeed it is difficult to explain how the poorest state in the Union and the state which annually competes to be the biggest net gainer of federal dollars for tax dollars sent north to Washington regularly casts its votes for the Republican party and presidential candidates who campaign on the idea of closing the valve on the flow of these federal to state revenues. Yet at the same time Mississippi is a state with its 37% African American population that is, at least on paper, in shouting distance of voting Democratic. Indeed Mississippi was one of the last of the Southern states to elect a Republican majority in both houses of the State Legislature. Mississippi continues to have the largest number of African American elected officials virtually all of whom are Democrats. 

On November 6 Mississippi will almost certainly give Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney his widest margin of victory over President Barack Obama of any state in the nation. The thinking of Mississippi voters in the 2012 Presidential election, despite the final margin, makes this one of the more interesting elections in the state’s history. 

Mississippi’s track record in presidential elections has often been one of voting against candidates and Washington rather than voting for anybody. From the moment that Republican Abraham Lincoln made the decision that the federal government would act with force to prevent the Southern states from seceding Mississippi has had a love-hate relationship with Washington. The state has resisted, often fiercely, being told what to do by those in power in the nation’s capital while simultaneously maintaining a spot near the head of the line as a state receiving federal monetary largess.

Modern electoral history produces for more than a little head scratching when it comes to analysis of presidential voting. Frustration with the slide toward policies guaranteeing racial equality in the Truman Administration lead to Mississippi being one of the first states to bolt the 1948 Democratic convention in favor of following the Strom Thurmond headed Dixiecrat third party ticket. This provided an avenue for Mississippians to vote against Democrat Truman without being forced to commit the heresy of voting Republican.

In 1960 Mississippians doubled down on its anti-integration position by voting overwhelmingly for a dummy slate of “unpledged electors”. In so doing Mississippians literally marched to the polls and threw their votes away in order to deprive Democrat John. F. Kennedy of Mississippi’s support.  Interestingly voting Republican was not yet an option but voting against a Democrat who supported federal action to enforce racial equality was acceptable. 

If we fast forward to 2012 presidential election we encounter an interesting dilemma facing Mississippi voters. It is yet another instance where the impetus to vote against a candidate outweighs the desire to vote for the alternative. In recent years different opinion polls have labeled Mississippi as the most conservative state in the union and also the most religious state in the country. Conservative and fundamentalist religious types in Mississippi have long labeled the religion of Mitt Romney – Mormonism – as a cult and as such contrary to the basic religious tenets of “born again” Christians. On the other hand, Democrat Barack Obama carries all of the baggage in Mississippi of being an African American, with a Middle Eastern-sounding middle name, and a place of birth that remains very much in question in this state. So the question is a puzzler. Who do Mississippians vote against?

Ironically, President Obama is the only professing Protestant Christian in the 2012 race. Yet it is clear that the majority of Mississippians are rationalizing, many in agonizing fashion, that a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints provides sufficient logic to enable a vote against the even more unacceptable alternative. Yes, race is still an issue in Mississippi politics but it is no longer the main issue and furthermore it is an issue that would be even less salient this year absent the mysterious question marks associated with President Obama’s name and place of birth. As it stands, however, powerful antipathy toward President Obama will be plenty sufficient to carry Mississippi for the less objectionable alternative.  

Wiseman is director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University