Obama’s coattails could sway Mississippi

It is possible for a Mississippi Democrat to win in a statewide election, but it would likely require 30 percent of the white vote along with nearly the entire black vote. In 2003, Musgrove lost his reelection bid for governor to current Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican. Musgrave took about 22 percent of the white vote, and lost the election 53 percent to 46 percent. In 1999, when Musgrove beat Republican gubernatorial nominee Mike Parker in one of the closest races in Mississippi history, he performed even better among white voters, running well ahead of typical Democratic performance in Northeast Mississippi, a Republican stronghold.

The formula that has sometimes worked for Mississippi Democrats is directly at odds with Obama’s strategy for putting Southern states in play. Obama and his aides have made the case that Obama could increase black turnout so substantially — by 30 percent or more — that Southern states with large African-American populations would become competitive even without much of a change in the white turnout. But the math here is much harder than the Obama campaign asserts. If you take the 2004 presidential election results, increase the black vote by 30 percent and assume that the white vote stays the same, Obama would still lose Mississippi by more than 100,000 votes. And most analysts think that a 30 percent increase in the black vote is extremely optimistic. Obama will surely draw African-Americans to the polls in record numbers, but even a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in African-American votes would be historic. Add to that Obama’s problems in attracting white Mississippi voters even in the Democratic primary, where he attracted only a quarter of white Democrats.

What Musgrove hopes is that he can have the best of both worlds. He can run as a more conservative Democrat picking up moderate white voters, just as Travis Childers did in the House special election to replace Roger Wicker. But Musgrove might also benefit from Obama energizing and turning out the black vote even while Musgrove keeps his distance from the presidential nominee.

Think about what would have happened in Musgrove’s race against Barbour in 2003 when Musgrove drew 22 percent of the white vote. If he had also had a 15 percent boost in the black vote that year, the race would have been very close, and he certainly could have won without breaking the 30 percent threshold that Democrats typically need to win statewide.

But while Musgrove might benefit from the Obama turnout effect, not all is dim for Roger Wicker. His poll numbers have been hurt by the fact that he represented only one-quarter of the state, while Musgrove has held statewide office. A May poll showed Wicker’s name recognition at 70 percent, with Musgrove’s over 90 percent. As the state gets to know Wicker, he may pick up traditional Republican voters in regions outside his congressional district, and because he hails from Northeast Mississippi, he may cut into Musgrove’s white support there.

The most likely scenario is that the race between Musgrove and Wicker will come down to the wire.