Southern Whites and Obama, the changing face of American politics

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In this year’s state Democratic primary, more than 400,000 voters went to the polls compared with 76,000 who voted in 2004. Traditionally, for a Democrat to win state office in Mississippi, a candidate needs high voter turnout among blacks, and the support of 30 per cent of whites.

Despite the predicted record turnout among his supporters, the Democratic presidential candidate is not expected to win the state and is not even campaigning there. But his electoral performance among white voters in Mississippi will nevertheless be watched closely on November 4 as a sign of how much has – or has not – changed in the deep South.

For some, Rebekah Mills, a 21-year-old student at the University of Mississippi is the face of change. Ms Mill’s parents are Republican but she keeps Obama signs in her yard even though they have been ripped.

She has been verbally at­tacked on campus and has had “dog mess” thrown on her door by a “mentally un­stable” neighbour who “used the N-word”, but she says she is “stuck on Obama” because he will not perpetuate the policies of George W. Bush, the president.

Among other white voters support for Mr Obama is tangible, but more muted. Jay King, a middle-aged construction worker, seems almost pained by his own shift­ing views on the presidential race. After months of sup­porting Mr McCain, he now believes he could be “per­suaded” to vote for Mr Ob­ama because the Democrat is simply “making more sense”. Mr King then launches into an explanation of how Mr Obama is “not [really] African American”.

“Your average African-American is out for what welfare can do for him,” Mr King says matter-of-factly. “I don’t think he’ll give blacks what they want.”

Camille Watkins, a white woman visiting Oxford from Kosciusko, a deeply conservative part of Mississippi, whispers gleefully when asked over breakfast that she is voting for Mr Obama although she has been a Republican all her life.

“I’m finally old enough to do what I damn well want with my vote and I feel he is going to bring a change,” Ms Watkins says quietly, so her friends cannot hear. Her views were shaped, she says, because she is utterly “sick” of Mr Bush. Though she readily admits her views are not “normal” where she comes from, she savours the fact that the majority of the country appears – according to recent polls – to agree with her.

“Let’s just see what America does. I think I’ll be on the winning side.”

The endorsement is not likely to be enough to put Mississippi in the “win” column for Mr Obama, but Ms Watkins’ vote might very well help to send Mr Musgrove to Washington.

The Financial Times

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