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Krulwich Wonders: Obama's Secret Weapon in the South - Small, Dead, but Still Kickin'

Wednesday, October 10, 2012 - 12:49 PM


Look at this map, and notice that deep, deep in the Republican South, there's a thin blue band stretching from the Carolinas through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. These are the counties that went for Obama in the last election. A blue crescent in a sea of red.

Matt Stiles/NPR

These same counties went mostly blue in 2004 and 2000. Why? Well, the best answer, says marine biologist Craig McClain, may be an old one, going back before the Civil War, before 1776, before Columbus, back more than 100 million years to the days when the Deep South was under water. Those counties, as he writes here, went for Obama because trillions and trillions and trillions of teeny sun-loving creatures died there. He's talking about plankton. That's why the Republicans can't carry those counties. Blame plankton.

[Don't leave. I know some of you bounced here because my headline was political, and the word "plankton" will send you scuttling back to HuffPo, Politico and Drudge, where politics is plankton-free. But before you go, check out this next map.]

Ron Blakey/Northern Arizona University

It's an image of North America as it looked during the Cretaceous era, 129 million to 65 million years ago. As you can see, much of the continent was still covered by water. The Deep South had a shoreline that curled through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, and there, in the shallow waters just offshore, were immense populations of floating, single-celled creatures who drifted about, trapped sunshine, captured carbon, then died and sank to the sea bottom. Those creatures became long stretches of nutritious chalk. (I love chalk.) 

When sea levels dropped and North America took on its modern shape, those ancient beaches — so alkaline, porous and rich with organic material — became a "black belt" of rich soil, running right through the South. You can see the Cretaceous beaches in this map, colored green. McClain got these maps from geologist Steve Dutch's website, at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.

Steven Dutch/Geology and Election 2000

And because this stretch was so rich and fertile, when cotton farmers moved here in the 19th century, this stretch produced the most cotton per acre. Harvests of 4,000-plus bales were common here. Notice that the most productive plantations mirror the ancient coastline.

Steven Dutch/Geology and Election 2000

Then came slavery.

McClain, quoting from Booker T. Washington's autobiography, Up From Slavery, points out: "The part of the country possessing this thick, dark and naturally rich soil was, of course, the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable, and consequently they were taken there in the largest numbers." After the Civil War, a lot of former slaves stayed on this land, and while many migrated North, their families are still there.

U.S. Census via Wikimedia Commons

In this 2000 census, you can see that the counties with the biggest populations of African-Americans still trace that Cretaceous shoreline.

This, says marine biologist McClain, explains that odd stretch of Obama blue; it's African-Americans sitting on old soil from ancient organisms that turned sunshine into fertilizer. So plankton remain a force in Southern elections — though not always, not continuously. After the Civil War, when the South voted solidly Democratic and Jim Crow laws ruled, many blacks couldn't vote, so the pattern disappears. Voting rights laws hadn't been passed during the Goldwater-Johnson election of 1964, so in this map, the African-American difference is invisible.

Steven Dutch/Geology and Election 2000

But some African-Americans were still there. So was the soil (though it's not as rich as it once was), and so were the rocks that geologist Steve Dutch "found immediately familiar" because they mapped those ancient shores. All of which is to say, when you cover politics, sometimes, without realizing it, you are also telling rock tales. Geology, every so often, peeks through.


Geologist Steve Dutch's detailed maps, and careful analysis, come from a study he did of the Bush-Gore election in 2000. He called it "Geology and Election 2000." You can find that here. "Dr. M" (that's Craig McClain's Nom de Blog at "Deep Sea News") wrote his geology analysis here.


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Comments [9]


To Laura from Alabama:

Look at the Alabama map again. The light blue patch just North of center is Birmingham. Directly to the West is Tuscaloosa county, which is solidly red.

A more detailed look at Tuscaloosa county (see link below) shows that your idea was good - U of A shows up as a small blue spot surrounded by a sea of red.

Where it goes off the rails is that our Alabama politicians also realized this trend long ago, and took measures to dilute its influence through creative drawing of voting districts (otherwise known as gerrymandering).

Detailed 2012 election map here:

Sixth Alabama congressional district:

Seventh alabama congressional district:

Nov. 14 2012 10:51 AM

For those who have not forgotten the "Fact of the Matter" this again gets at the heart of the issue of Yellow Rain, and what was wrong with the podcast from a third party perspective.

Radiolab has so much to answer for.

Nov. 13 2012 07:37 PM
Marghe from Canada

Interesting article!! Looking to see if it a true trend. It is amazing how you found a different prospective to understand our world!

PS:There were never invaders from Africa... the British brought them there, then, after selling to the world "civilization", realized that it was wrong...try to change. Everybody is an invader in North America except the natives, who were massacred.

Nov. 06 2012 12:41 AM
Laura from Alabama

Fun little exercise in myth-making. THESE ARE COLLEGE TOWNS AND CITIES. University of Alabama. University of Georgia. University of South Carolina. Young people and academics typically vote Democrat. As do people that live in urban centers.

Oct. 30 2012 02:33 PM
Art from Seattle

Here are a couple of different ways of looking at this article:

1. Line of old black soil leaves line of old black families.

2. Ancient coastline taints water, causes voter dementia.

3. Invaders from Africa populate richest farm land in the South.

4. Democrats in South collect at the bottom of the hill, unable to climb to new heights.

5. Democrats wash up on ancient coastline.

6. Ancient plankton votes democratic.

Oct. 24 2012 06:47 PM

Just found this: Kao Kalia Yang's (interpreter for the Yellow Rain piece) first response to "Yellow Rain"

Oct. 23 2012 11:27 AM
Haven from CT, USA

Tisk, tisk Mr. Krulwich, remember your science!
Though you aptly described how a prehistoric geological phenomenon can impact a non-prehistoric demographic, conspicuously missing from the conclusion was a delineation -or even an acknowledgement- of any tangible correlation between race and voting patterns. This leaves the final cognitive link in the narrative to be left to the "obvious": that black people largely vote Democratic. I'm not saying you're wrong, but from a journalistic standpoint, or more importantly, from a scientific one, the question you have really answered here is not 'why are there more democratic votes the plankton belt?" but "why are there higher numbers of black people in the plankton belt?" This omission submits, though surely unintentionally, that black people are a guaranteed vote for Obama. Again, I'm not entering into a discussion of the accuracy of such a submission, just pointing out the message sent by what was not said.

Oct. 22 2012 03:39 PM

Great story and very interesting. The Appalachians, for example, are an even older geological feature that has had a strong effect on linguistics. Malcolm Gladwell almost mentions it in one of his books. Best, Morris

Oct. 12 2012 07:43 PM
Napoleon from EU

hah what a humor

Oct. 12 2012 03:32 PM

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