South Dakota and the Native American Vote

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:

South Dakota 2008

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:

South Dakota Indian Reservations

South Dakota Indian Reservations

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.

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3 Responses to South Dakota and the Native American Vote

  1. Brett Heffner says:

    That poorest county by per-capita income is Buffalo County, SD. By median household income, it is Kalawao County, Hawaii, which barely exists on Molokai Island. It is a remnant leper colony inaccessible except by sea, mule trail, or air and had 90 residents in the 2010 census.,_Hawaii

  2. tellias says:

    I studied Native American law while in school. A very complex subject. Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has made sure that the Indian reservations remain exactly that: reservations and not independent states.

    Because tribes are denied independent economic sovereignty, they often rely heavily on the federal government for funds. Although it is the Republican party that has pushed for more independence of Indian lands, it is the democratic party that has pushed for status quo. Unfortunately, from my experience, many natives like the free money and know that if they were required to accept more independence, much of that money would disappear.

    I don’t exactly have an opinion on the matter, but I do know many Indians vote democrat because they wants the funds to keep coming. A bit funny when you consider many want more autonomy for their people.

    • inoljt says:

      That definitely might be a factor.

      On the other hand, I’m not completely sure how many Native Americans actually are aware of that; you probably know better than me, though.

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