Charlie Mitchell column

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Whatever  the reason, state Democrats chose not to vote

The buzz is that Haley Barbour, by upping his win percentage to 58 percent last week from 52 percent of the vote four years ago has commanded an even stronger endorsement from the people of Mississippi.

But check the numbers. Preliminary totals reveal Barbour actually received 55,000 fewer votes this go-around.

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Yep, when Barbour defeated Ronnie Musgrove, he did it with 470,404 actual votes.

When Haley Barbour defeated John Arthur Eaves Jr., he did it with 414,762 actual votes.

At least 180,000 people who voted in 2003 did not feel it was worth their time to cast a state ballot in 2007. And while Republican turnout was down, Democrat turnout was down more than twice as much.

Plausible reasons could fill the rest of this column:

o Barbour was going to win anyway, so why bother.

o Eaves was too conservative for social progressives in Mississippi, so they stayed home.

o It was a backlash against negative campaigning.

o People don’t see much relevance between state and local government and their daily lives.

The most compelling reason may be that voters are drawn to what Mississippi State University political guru Dr. Marty Wiseman calls a “horse race.” The Barbour-Musgrove matchup was seen as a vibrant contest, where the Barbour-Eaves matchup wasn’t. The more exciting campaign four years ago drew 897,494 voters, a record for a state election. Last Tuesday, 714,424 went to the polls, about a third of the state’s adults. That’s a number much more in line with turnout averages over the past 30 years. And while Republicans may not have been motivated, Democrats have been left rudderless.

The numbers shout that the number of black Mississippians who went to polls was down, and sharply.

We can pause here to reflect on the paradox. In no state was the quest for ballot access by minorities resisted more strongly than it was here. People dedicated their whole lives to achieving today’s norm — that black people and white people can sign up to vote and cast ballots with equal ease. But perhaps without a champion on the ballot, the choice was to exercise the right not to vote, which, of course, is a right, too.

Two counties illustrate the decline in black voters most clearly. They are Holmes County on the edge of the Mississippi Delta and Jefferson County in Southwest Mississippi. In those heavily black counties four years ago, Barbour polled 24 percent and 14.5 percent, respectively. Last week, Barbour’s percentages increased to 29 percent and 20 percent.

But again, the raw vote tells a more compelling story.  Barbour’s actual totals fell from 1,663 to 1,462 in Holmes County and 586 votes to 503 votes in Jefferson.

While that was a dip, there was a plunge on the Democrat side of the ledger. Musgrove polled 5,052 Holmes votes in 2003 to 3,534 for Eaves last week and Musgrove polled 2,914 Jefferson votes four years ago to 2,322 for Eaves. That’s a drop of 2,110 Democratic voters in two counties alone. One in four who voted in 2003 didn’t vote in 2007.

Rankin County is Mississippi’s most Republican. Barbour polled 28,633 votes or more than 74 percent there four years ago. Last week, he polled fewer actual votes, 27,928, but his percentage rose to 79 because the Democrat vote fell even more sharply, from 9,151 to 7,609.

Late in his cruise to re-election, Barbour assembled a group of leading Mississippi Democrats who are black, including former U.S. Rep. and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, to appear with him on a platform and offer strong statements of endorsement. It was a powerful coup, with the Barbour camp saying its goal was to increase to 20 percent the portion of black Mississippians who would support Barbour.

That didn’t happen. In fact, in Claiborne County, where Espy is county board attorney and a frequent consultant on public policy, Barbour gained only two more votes than in 2003, which was still only 25 percent of the Claiborne vote.

It’s no secret that there are many distinct camps within today’s Democratic Party in Mississippi. Black voters, here and nationwide, remain a lock — at least when they go to polls. They are joined by urban progressives and liberals, both black and white, and by social conservatives, like Eaves, whose loyalty dates to when being a Democrat and being a Mississippian were synonymous.

A “horse race” could change things, but there wasn’t one last Tuesday. Across the board, Mississippi Democrats expressed their preferences by staying home. Winning requires focus, and that’s something the state party lacks.


Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail