There has been a trend in the democratic primary for the 2008 Presidential Campaign that has recently, in a Salon article, been given a new name: the Northern Effect. There are many trends and surprises in the 2008 election, some of which may be important, and some of which are statistical oddities. The "Northern Effect" may be either.

The so-called "Northern Effect" has to do with the ethnicity of Barack Obama, the current democratic front runner for the nomination. As a man of African and European descent, Obama has a natural constituency in African-American voters. Likewise, his opponent, Hillary Clinton, often does well with white voters, especially in the Rust Belt and Appalachia. However, across a large region, consisting of the Upper Midwest, Great Plains, Mountain States and West Coast (the name "Northern Effect" is somewhat misleading, to me "Western Effect" would make more sense), Obama also leads Clinton, sometimes by very large margins. These states are some of the whitest in the United States of America: Idaho, with an African-American population of 0.4%, gave Obama a 80-17% lead over Clinton.

There are several theories about why these voters from some of the most homogeneous regions of the country flock to Obama.

  • The most popular that I have read so far, and the one mentioned in the salon.com article, is the idea that people are more likely to think well of an ethnic group (or representative of that group) they don't actually live amongst. In this theory, it is rivalry amongst ethnic groups living in close proximity that leads to identification with their group, and possible antipathy to other groups. In this theory, voters in Idaho don't self-identify as being white, because they take it for granted. My largest problem with this theory is that it seems to have a pessimistic view of human nature and the American electorate, as well as not having any actual data to back it up.
  • One of the more likely explanations is that the large lead for Obama is an artefact of the fact that most of the contests in the West he has done so well in have all been caucuses, where Obama's young, enthusiastic base outperforms in comparison with his general support. This perhaps is part of the explanation, but not all of it. Especially because Obama still led in many primaries, such as Wisconsin and (as I am writing this), Oregon.
  • Part of the effect may be that voters in some parts of the east and mid-west may be hereditary democrats who come from working class, labor union families who take being democratic as a given, but are not particularly interested in the social change that is the heart of the democratic party for some. Many people in Western states who have become democratic are probably converts, and therefore have a zeal for the new and different that more established democrats lack.
  • My own personal theory, as someone who has lived in Montana, is that part of the enthusiasm for Obama has to do with the values of the West. Without engaging in too much cultural foiling, the Western states probably do have different values than Appalachia. One of the foremost of these is individualism, the belief that people are able to find their own place in life based on their abilities. Whereas in older parts of the country, people might "know their place" based on the social structure of the community for scores or hundreds of years, people in the west are more likely to be new arrivals, who have made their own way. Because of that, I have noticed that Montanans (for example), while perhaps being ignorant or skeptical about the effects of institutional racism, don't seem to be particularly high on personal racism. They believe, and are perhaps going out of their way to show, that it is a person's accomplishments that matter, not their background.

Again, all of this is speculation. Whether the Northern Effect will be an important part of politics in this or future cycles, and whether it says something about American culture, or is just an oddity of electoral politics, remains to be seen.

The salon.com article in question: http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2008/05/16/270/print.html

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