In Alabama, two statewide elections were held in 2012. The first was the Presidential election, where, predictably, Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama in a 22-point landslide. The other election was a bit more interesting. It was an election for the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. The Republican candidate was Roy Moore, a former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court from 2001 to 2003, who was removed from the court for his repeatedly disobeying court orders to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Judicial Building. The Democratic candidate was Bob Vance, a circuit judge in Birmingham. This election was much closer, and Moore ended up defeating Vance by a margin of only 4 points, 52-48.
In this article, I analyze the precinct-level election results for both elections in Jefferson County, Alabama (the most populous county in Alabama, and home to Birmingham) to compare the performances of Barack Obama and Bob Vance, and to examine their coalitions to see where each outperformed the other.
First, to give you an idea of the racial demographics of Jefferson County (since, this being the South, elections generally revolve around race), here is a map of the racial demographics of each precinct.
As the map shows, most of the city of Birmingham is heavily African-American, and a few of its suburbs such as Bessemer, Fairfield, and Center Point also have large African-American populations. There’s also a small white area of Birmingham adjacent to the suburb of Mountain Brook. The remainder of the county is heavily white. Jefferson County as a whole is about 50 percent white and 45 percent African-American.
This map shows the results of the 2012 presidential election in Jefferson County. As you can see, these results line up with the racial demographics pretty closely. With only very few exceptions, the heavily African-American areas voted for Obama, and the heavily white areas voted for Romney. The only places where this pattern did not hold up are the white areas of Birmingham, which generally preferred Obama, and the suburb of Homewood, where about 30 percent of the white people voted for Obama. Despite the fact that whites slightly outnumber African-Americans in Jefferson County, Obama won it by about six points. This is because of those exceptions, plus the fact that Obama received about 15-20 percent of the white vote in some of the other suburbs such as Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook, while Obama received over 99 percent of the vote in many heavily African-American precincts.
This map shows how Obama’s performance changed from 2008 to 2012. You’ll see that in most parts of the county, his performance barely changed at all. This is true in both the heavily African-American inner city areas (where Obama won almost unanimously both times) and in the heavily white, ultra-conservative northern and western areas, where he barely broke 10 percent both times. Most of the places where Obama did substantially better in 2012 are newer, middle-class suburbs just outside of Birmingham, places like Center Point, Forestdale, and Pleasant Grove. These areas trended Democratic because African-Americans are moving into them (Center Point, for example, went from 24 percent black in 2000 to 63 percent black in 2010). In contrast, many of the places where Obama did substantially worse in 2012 are older, richer, heavily white suburbs such as Mountain Brook, Homewood, and Vestavia Hills, along with the nearby neighborhoods of Birmingham that have similar demographics. This is not too surprising, since Obama performed very well in rich suburbs across the country in 2008, so it makes sense that those areas would revert to their normal voting patterns in 2012. However, there’s more to these cities’ voting patterns than meets the eye, as we will see very soon.
Now we get to the Supreme Court Election.
The map above shows the results of the 2012 Chief Justice of the Supreme Court election in Alabama. At first glance, it seems to be quite similar to the 2012 presidential election map. Most of Birmingham is very dark blue, while the rural areas west of Birmingham as well as some of the northern and northeastern suburbs such as Gardendale and Trussville are still dark red. But there’s a key difference here, and it lies in the suburbs southeast of Birmingham, namely the aforementioned trio of Homewood, Vestavia Hills, and Mountain Brook. That area, which was so heavily Republican in the presidential election, suddenly has a lot more blue. This next map shows the comparison between Obama’s and Bob Vance’s performances in their 2012 elections.
On this map, pink or red indicates that Obama outperformed Vance, while blue means that Vance outperformed Obama. On the map, pretty much the entire cities of Homewood, Vestavia Hills, and Mountain Brook are colored in the deepest shade of blue, which indicates that Vance outperformed Obama by over 20 points there. In fact, in some of those precincts, Vance’s outperformance was much higher than that. Obama received barely 20 percent of the vote in Mountain Brook, while Vance got over 60 percent there. Vance’s outperformances of Obama in Homewood and Vestavia Hills, as well as in the adjacent, mostly white neighborhoods of Birmingham, were around 30 points.
What’s the significance of this? These suburbs are the only places in Jefferson County where voters split tickets en masse, i.e. normally-Republican voters voted for Vance in massive numbers. While these suburbs are generally very conservative, their conservatism is more of the fiscal kind than the social kind, and they decided that a well-liked, moderate jurist was preferable to a fundamentalist Christian bomb-thrower who had previously been kicked out of office. Voters such as these are what propelled Vance to a 63-37 win in Jefferson County, and similar voters in other areas of Alabama are what helped Vance get so close to winning the state. An important thing to note about these voters, however, is that they live almost entirely in cities and suburbs. Across Alabama, Vance massively outperformed Obama in urban and suburban counties. Vance won both Mobile County (Mobile) and Madison County (Huntsville), also won Tuscaloosa County, received 70 percent in Montgomery County (Obama got only 60 percent), and even got 37 percent in right-wing Shelby County, which contains suburbs of Birmingham and usually votes in the low 20s for Democrats. However, Vance only slightly outperformed Obama in the rural areas of Alabama, and his inability to substantially outperform the Democratic baseline there was what ultimately sealed his fate.
There’s one last thing that you might note in the map above. The heavily African-American areas of Jefferson County saw Obama actually outperform Vance, the opposite of what happened in the rest of the county (and most of the state). The precinct results make clear that this is because Vance received “only” about 96-97 percent of the African-American vote in Jefferson County, while Obama received over 99 percent of it. It’s unclear why these 2-3 percent of African-Americans voted for Obama but not Vance – they could be social conservatives who agreed with Moore but are normally Democrats, or they could be Republicans who voted for Obama because he’s black. If future Democratic presidential candidates receive only 96-97 percent of the African-American vote in Jefferson County, then the second option would seem more likely. Either way, these Obama-Moore African-American voters had very little impact on the election as a whole, since even if Vance had matched Obama’s performance among African-Americans across the state, he would still have lost.