Blue v. Red:  Modern Racial Politics in Omaha

 

By: Preston McLaughlin, Mariah Murdie, David Nashalook, Brandhi Plummer-Williams

 

Introduction:

During the course of our Sociology class we learned and discussed the importance of studies conducted on social groups large and small, men and women, minority and majority, and everyone in between. Such, studies reveal to us the correlations and reasons why we do what we do as well as how it alters the world around us. Our group decided to study the effects of one’s race on the American political system and if we deemed their was a correlation between race and politics, how would we see that affect manifest itself. During the course of our search for answers we looked at scholarly journals, maps, census data, and election results. In the later stages of our search we looked more closely for data that directly affected Nebraska and the counties surrounding Omaha. At the conclusion of our search we came to one inescapable conclusion: race does in fact alter the political system in and around Omaha, but only under certain conditions and only in some fashions.

 

Methodology:

The data found for this project was primarily found through critically analyzing multiple credible sources.  The data we investigated for our findings showed multiple trends of similarity between the data used for the analysis.  While the data was on a more local level, more of the sources were from Omaha based groups which have previously studied similar things.  When using this data for our analyses, there was a trend of national racial studies which were applicable to the local community of Omaha.  While not all trends seemed like probable factors which were affecting racial groups in the community, it was deemed worthy of mention within the article due to their influence around the Midwest.

 

Findings & Analysis:

Race:

 

In modern racial politics, the entire point of study is to examine the roles, influences, and consequences of race in all types of political settings.  The way in which race plays in and out of all levels of American Politics greatly impacts the voting body and in turn, the governing body.

In the city of Omaha, nearly all candidates who ran for political office in 2018 were of white ethnicity, which greatly reflects the national image of candidates (and office holders).  Statewide in Nebraska, there were only 3 elections for public and state office which had candidates of black ethnicity and there were no candidates of Latino descent or of Asian descent (2018 Election Guide). Nonetheless, in Omaha about 14% of the population is African American, another 13% is Latin American and about 2% are Asian.  Despite these proportions, each minority group was highly underrepresented in the 2018 elections.

The voting majority in the city of Omaha is also white. This is because the population is primarily white.  These two facts must go hand in hand, but only if rate of voter registration occurs at a similar pace as rate of birth.  However, there is unequal voter representation in local, state, and national government bodies. The representation for all minority groups are not precisely distributed and proportional between the actual population and the body of power.

For the Latin American minority, it is unfortunately nearly impossible for them to be properly represented in political settings, whether as candidates or voters, because Latinos in Nebraska are less likely to vote in elections than any other race (Gracia & Pablo, Hispanics/Latinos in the United States). That is because citizenship is required when registering to vote and even when registered, not all Latinos who are citizens will choose to vote. These choices are likely motivated by the risk of endangering other family members who are not yet citizens or who immigrated illegally.  Another motivation is the potential hassle that Latin Americans face when confronted with the stereotype of their “non-citizenship” status. This can make voting an extremely anxious and worrisome task, despite these citizens being completely within their rights.

The Latin American population is growing rapidly each year and not simply from immigration.  First generation Latinos are living longer than their white counterparts of the same generation and are more likely to have larger families.  This type of growth among the populus has forced different groups of Latin Americans to move northward. As established immigrants have found their economic foothold, they begin migrating to states such as Nebraska.  In Omaha specifically, Latinos are attracted here through work and the prospect of work. The meat packing plant in Omaha is a hot commodity when it comes to readily available jobs. These incoming Latinos and their families, who are all interconnected can put themselves and their families at risk with their relocation, which has a high effect on the voter turnout rate of the Hispanic population of Omaha.

Almost each year since 1996, the rate of of voter turnout for the African American minority has been within 11% of the white majority voter turnout rate.  In 2016, 63.5% of Non-Hispanic Whites and 59.3% of Non-Hispanic Blacks voted. This means that the minority voter turnout rate was within 5.2% of the majority.  However, 73.3% of the electorate is composed of Non-Hispanic Whites. When compared to the 12.4% of the Non-Hispanic Blacks in the electorate, it is easier to see the disproportionate representation of the electorate compared to voter turnout.

However in an article titled, “The Minimal Cue Hypothesis,” it was found that ethnic minority voters are more likely to vote for a candidate of the same color or who identifies as partially mixed with the same ethnic group.  This is found to stem from the idea that individuals within any particular ethnic group will be more likely to gravitate towards others of the racial background. It comes from the idea that it is easier for humans to relate and interact with people who have the same cultural settings as their own.

Despite the idea of ethnic minority voters uniting for a candidate of the same ethnicity, the Minimal Cue Hypothesis does not work in their favor.  The Minimal Cue Hypothesis asserts that white voters are more likely to become mobilized in an election if they believe that the candidate of color is campaigning more towards minority groups than as an un-racially-biased candidate.   It also declares that a candidate’s race can deeply influence voting results and voting turnout if a majority group believes a candidate is disregarding certain ethnic groups whilst campaigning. While the Minimal Cue Hypothesis seems like a major factor in the relationship between voting and racial politics, there are other key roleplayers in this relationship.

While black votes are just as important in any election as white votes, the fact that the minority group simply lacks the numbers to compete with a majority group results in elections that are influenced by racial bloc voting.  Racial bloc voting is the problematic system in which the majority group can inaccurately sway a single political office to their favor by cancelling out the minority voice due to its “strength in numbers.” (Schaffner, 2011) An example in racial bloc voting is when a particular candidate is elected into power (despite the outrage of a particular or multiple groups) through the backing of a majority group.  While this is simply the way that the election system is set up, racial bloc voting accounts for the racial influences and messages that a candidate can send out to their backing, thus getting them elected though wrongful, racist means instead of just, political lobbying.

Racial bloc voting does occur and cannot be overlooked when considering the pieces which make up American racial politics.  However, the candidates themselves are also major players when it comes to the game of politics. Especially throughout Nebraska and within Omaha, the candidates themselves do not accurately represent the population.  There are so many aspects of a candidate, no matter their ethnic descent, which is only relatable to a small populus of the overall people in the voting body. Top this candidate off with varying political agendas and opposing political parties, this lowers the actuality of an individual voter agreeing with that candidate.

Racial bloc voting is a major player in the game of modern racial politics.  As it shows, it has the ability to completely eliminate a racial groups voice in the election.  The main way that racial bloc voting has been made possible is through gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is defined as a way of manipulating the boundaries (of electoral constituencies) so as to favor one party.  This makes it much easier during election-time to eliminate the voting power of opposing party voters. While it originally began as a way to keep certain political parties out of office, it has slowly evolved, especially during the Jim Crow time period, to reduce the voting power and voter turnout of blacks.

It began in the south, where the states previously known as the Confederate States began to redistrict in a manner which slowly diminished the active political power.  This type of redistricting/gerrymandering has slowly spread across the United States. In Omaha, the effects of gerrymandering are alive and well since the election of Obama in 2008.  Slowly, the power of the black vote has been put down and thus, the power of racial bloc voting has increased (Love, 2015).

Another viewpoint of how some elections are thrown by racial bloc voting is the theory of saving face.  According to, “Saving Face: Identifying Voter Responses to Black and Female Candidates,” the idea of “saving face” is explored.  This act is defined as the practice of white voters over reporting their true willingness to vote for a black or female candidate.  In a sociological lens, social desirability pressures are the culprit to this unethical practice. While in the short run, this type of voting can benefit a colored candidate, its possibility of actuality is diminished when votes remain anonymous (Krupnikov, Saving Face).  No American is required to reveal their voting preference, thus this idea of “saving face” is invalid.  This is because (despite its benefit to minority candidates in non-anonymous elections) it does not help to balance the voting plane when the Minimal Cue Theory is applied.

Overall, the likelihood of a candidate being of non-white race in an election is low, which can greatly affect both voter turnout, and how racial groups vote.  In some cases, people vote strictly along party lines. However in this everchanging era, this can be more difficult to achieve when there are so many other things a candidate can stand for than just their party.  While some sociological theories can be applied to the style in which people vote, they view trends and not the individual and their motives. This leads to a very basic conclusion. Not all races vote simply on racial bias.  Voting due to racial bias is a realistic occurrence, nonetheless, many people vote for the candidate they believe will best fulfill the role and incite the most change they would want.

Modern racial politics has many other major factors than simply race which can influence it.  Other key factors such as class, education, age, and political party can also greatly impact how racial events turn out… especially those events such as elections.

Political Party:

Because of Omaha’s unique position in having a separate electoral college vote, turnout is of utmost importance to both parties. When Obama received its electoral vote in 2008 it was a turning point in partisan politics in Omaha. Through voting maps and results from prior elections during the last decade it is clear where partisan divisions arise in Omaha and how it is impacting who wins office.

The 2011 redistricting of Nebraska was a controversial one as many Democrats believed that lines were drawn to advantageously help Republicans. Nebraska’s second district used to contain Douglas County, Bellevue, and Offutt Air Force Base. However, the district was redrawn to include the western half of Sarpy County in with Douglas county and place Bellevue into the First District (Omaha World Herald, Swing Left). The problem is, including western Sarpy county, which is predominantly white and Republican, dilutes the Democrat’s power in Omaha, and putting Offutt in the First District places an area with a higher minority population in a district that is rural and Republican (Omaha World Herald). By separating the Democrat’s votes, Republicans gained the advantage in future elections.

In addition to drawing districts, there is also the issue of increasing opportunities for the electorate to vote. Many people are unable to reach their polling place on election day and must rely on other forms of voting such as early voting. There are two kinds of early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and in-person early voting, which can be advantageous for either party (Biggers and Hanmer). The issue is that not all state legislatures will allow either form of early voting, and sometimes will refuse any form of expanding voter rights. No-excuse absentee voting allows voters to mail in their ballots without needing a reason of inability to vote on election day which can be beneficial to Republican voters in rural areas without convenient polling places, and in-person early voting, when a person can show up to a satellite location to vote before election day, is more favorable to Democrats (Biggers and Hanmer). It is possible that a predominantly Democrat or Republican legislature will enact voting laws that will favor one political party over the other.

The issue with partisan politics is that Nebraska is one of two states which can split its electoral college vote, and the only unicameral state, a body which is supposed to be non-partisan. As mentioned before, Obama winning the Second District’s vote in 2008 was a wake-up call to state Republicans. Because the state legislature is supposed to be non-partisan, the district lines should be drawn in a way that makes elections competitive. Using algorithms comprised of data going back to 2006, FiveThirtyEight was able to create districts that would promote a competitive race. It calculated that a competitive Second District would include much of Bellevue and appear similar, but not quite the same, as it was before 2011 (FiveThirtyEight). If the goal in 2021 is to create a competitive race then the lines should be drawn similar to how they were 10 years ago.

When examining the results of the 2017 Mayoral election there is a distinct split between Democrats and Republicans along 72 street (2017 Mayoral Voting Results Map). The western half of the city is whiter and far more affluent than north and south Omaha. Median household incomes tend to be above the national average west of 72nd while the majority of neighborhood tracts below the national average are east of 72nd (The Statistical Atlas). The major split between party ideologies lies in whether to support the status quo or to build new wealth for the less fortunate. Those with wealth tend to want to maintain their wealth and will vote Republican while those who have less will vote Democrat, with some variation respectively. Hence why the split is so distinct, the distribution of wealth is concentrated in the western half of the city.

Since most of the wealth is contained within the western half of Omaha, and Douglas County, the party with the most wealth will have the most power. Because wealth is an indicator of education and status, both of which are predictors for voting, the wealthier party will also have a higher likelihood of voter turnout. Studies have shown that as education increases, so does someone’s involvement in their communities regardless of race (Journal of Blacks in Higher Education). While it is true that Republicans in Douglas County percentage wise are more likely to vote, in the presidential and House elections democrats received more votes in Douglas County. The exception to this is the Mayoral vote in 2017, as Stothert won by almost six percentage points. In the 2016 gubernatorial elections the Democrats received more votes for president and the House in Douglas County yet Clinton did not receive the electoral vote and Don Bacon was elected as its Representative (Douglas County Elections Committee).

In addition to wealth, a key predictor for party affiliation is race. When looking at the demographics of Omaha most tracts west of 72nd are made up of over 80% whites. As a whole, Douglas County is about 70% white, and Sarpy County, which is included in the Second District, is about 82% white (Statistical Atlas). The fact that elections are as close is astounding considering how homogenous the area really is. Because the second district of Nebraska was redrawn in 2011 to include more suburban areas of Sarpy County, elections shifted in favor of the Republicans due to a higher proportion of white voters (Morning, Swing Left). This shows how much power the state legislature has over gubernatorial elections and how it is influencing who wins the election.

Education:

In a study conducted by UNO’s Center For Public Affairs Research it was found that in the 2014 and 2016 elections the counties with the highest percentage of residents holding a bachelor’s degree or higher were also the counties with the highest voter turnout(“Nebraska Voter Turnout 2014,2016,2018”, 2018); furthermore the zip codes in and around Omaha also experienced the same phenomenon. In the 2018 election we see education playing a minor role in the senate election (“Nebraska Election Results 2018: Live Midterm Map by County & Analysis”). During the study we were unable to find data pertaining to the 2018 election results, however data was found for the following counties in Nebraska for the 2015 year: Sarpy, Douglas, Washington, Dodge. The data collected from census data about each counties education population was compared to the 2016 general election turnout and again a correlation was found between how educated a counties population is and voter turnout(“Douglas, NE”) (Gale, “Primary Election”, 2016).

Age & Race Turnout Rates:

American Fact Finder places the median age in Omaha at 34.3 years old (United States Census Bureau, 2010). Looking at this data and comparing it to data from the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s voter turnout table from 2014-2016 voter turnout increased from that age range during that time by 30%. While over 250,000 18-29 year olds chose not to vote in the 2016 electronic. The CPS turnout Rates data table shows that in the past presidential elections and midterm elections the age range of young adults (ages 18-29) cote the least, 43.4% votes in the 2016 presidential election. While in the middle were the average age group, ages 30-44, which 56.9% voted as well as older middle aged adults, ages 45-59 (66.2% voted). The individuals who votes the most were the 60+ age range with a turnout of 71.4% in the 2016 election. This data demonstrates how the older a person is the more likely they are to vote.

These same data tables also depict turnout rates by race. Showing election results from over the years dating back to 1996, white Americans always have the highest voter turnout in comparison to black Americans, Hispanic Americans, and “others”. This data is easily compared to census data which tells us that there are approximately 73.1% white, 13.7% black, 13.1% hispanic or latino, and 0.1% “other”.

 

Conclusion:

In this study it was determined that the most important factors for voting in Omaha politics were race, political party, education, and age. Race affected how minorities were districted, who they were more likely to vote for, and how candidates would engineer their campaign to either promote or dissuade voters towards racial politics. Political party heavily influenced how district lines were drawn as Republican legislatures have drawn boundaries to dilute the Democrat’s vote. Education positively correlated with higher turnout in certain zip codes, and voters by age showed that younger voters generally opted not to vote. Further research must be done into policies that are preventing or making it more difficult for minority and younger voters to show up on election day to increase representation.

Works Cited
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