A while ago I was perusing the election results, when I happened upon South Dakota. South Dakota is one of those conservative Plains states which everybody writes off as inevitably Republican. Yet nobody has a really good explanation for why Democrats can’t win it; it’s kind of like Indiana that way. Few people know this, but Bill Clinton actually came within four percent of winning the state during both elections.
In any case, Barack Obama lost South Dakota by 8.41%, a substantial but not overwhelming margin (I bet he could win it, but that’s not the point of this post). This New York Times map indicates how he did in each county:
For such a homogeneous state, the county-by-county results show a striking polarization, especially in the western portion of the state. McCain is winning 61.64% of the vote in Fall River County (the bottom left one); directly to the right, Obama is winning 88.69% of the vote in Shannon County. One would expect to see such results in a racially divided area; places like Detroit or Louisiana.
One certainly would not expect Obama to win 88.69% of the vote in any county located in the vicinity of the Dakotas. Shannon County’s result certainly surprised me.
As it turns out, Shannon County is smack in the middle of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation; more than 90% of the population is Native American. There is an extremely strong correlation between Indian reservations and Obama’s share of the vote in South Dakota. In fact, the only dark blue county not located within an Indian reservation (Clay County) is home to the University of South Dakota.
Check it out:
All this is extremely interesting, because I hadn’t expected the Native American vote to be so overwhelmingly Democratic. If you had asked me to guess how Native Americans voted in 2008, I might have estimated that 60% went for Obama. Yet South Dakota’s results indicate San-Francisco-level support for Obama amongst Native Americans.
I can only provide guesses on why this is. Native American communities are extremely impoverished, and thus probably more receptive to Democrats in general. Shannon County is the second-poorest county in the United States (the poorest county is another reservation located in South Dakota). Sarah Palin’s “Real America®” theme probably didn’t help either. Race probably was a factor, but I have no idea how big a role it played. But even taking all these factors into account, it’s still surprising that somewhere between 70-90% of Native Americans voted Democratic.
I don’t think anybody has actually gone to these reservations and asked why everybody voted for Obama. Then again, I don’t think many people thought about the Native American vote in the first place.
They should. If the Democrats ever get competitive in South Dakota, they’d better pay attention to the Native Americans.