In both 2008 and 2012, the majority of Jefferson County voters supported Barack Obama f0r president while Obama’s respective opponents — John McCain and Mitt Romney — dominated statewide balloting.
Long-time Jefferson County Democratic Party and Election Commission Chairman Trey Ashcraft said he’s not surprised by the local balloting.
“I actually would have been shocked by any other results,” said Ashcraft, who will be stepping down from his posts Jan. 28 in pursuit of new career interests. “The fact that you had an African-American in the 2008 presidential race was especially exciting for a county with such a large African-American population. This year, I think people were just as excited, but perhaps for some different or added reasons. But I’m not surprised that President Obama carried the county in both elections.”
Ashcraft was serving as county clerk in 2008 and related some of his recollections from that election.
“People were lined up outside the courthouse door waiting to vote,” he said. “They were eager to vote, both to get George Bush out of the White House and put Obama in.”
Last year, Obama’s supporters seemed to be wanting to “prove a point.”
“I think the county’s African-American and other supporters were defensive because President Obama had been under such heat since his 2008 election,” Ashcraft said. “I believe a lot were still excited about having an African-American president, but I think some issues played more into the voters’ decision. They wanted him to have more of an opportunity to be able put his policies to work. They didn’t like what they heard from Romney and the Republicans.”
In 2008, 62.19 percent of the county’s votes went to Obama. In 2012, the percentage increased to 63.8.
But Obama didn’t attract only black voters, Ashcraft said.
“There were a healthy number of whites, Hispanics and others who supported him,” Ashcraft said. “There was, of course, a much greater percentage nationally. There had to be for him to win. If African-Americans make up only 14 to 18 percent of the population, it’s evident that Obama couldn’t have won without strong white support.”
Ashcraft said Obama’s emergence on a national level played into a changing sense of political identity.
“Arkansas and the South have moved greatly from what they once were,” he said. “For a century or more, Arkansas was almost a Democratic block and much the same could be said about the entire South. But that tide has turned. The Republican Party is stronger across the region than ever before, and other changes are now occurring as well.”
Ashcraft said he finds two recent elections here to be especially telling.
“Debe Hollingsworth is a white female who beat a black male, two-term incumbent and six other blacks in a nine-candidate mayoral race in November,” he said. “And she won overwhelmingly. And before that, Earnest Brown, who is African-American, beat Maxie Kizer, who is white, in a circuit judge’s race here. Hollingsworth had significant African-American support and Brown couldn’t have defeated Kizer without white support.
“My point is that voters are becoming more open,” he said. “I think more and more voters don’t care if you’re black or white or male or female if they perceive you can help in solving the problems that matter most to them. That’s not to say that we don’t have voters who strongly identify with one party over the other, however. But Jefferson County and the nation and the world are changing, and politics are changing, too, and I would have to say that President Obama is certainly a big part of that change.”
Ashcraft said the future of politics at all levels will be “interesting.”
“It’s going to be fun to see what upcoming elections will bring,” he said. “I think there will be more diversity locally and statewide, and I believe it’ll become the norm to see more women and other minorities on presidential tickets. Also on the national level, I think some new names will crop up between now and the next presidential election, and we all know that four years can be a long time and a short time.”
After twice helping to elect the nation’s first black president, Jefferson County’s voters may aid in the selection of the first female chief executive should forecasters be correct and former First Lady Hillary Clinton decides to run in 2016.
“I don’t know about that, but it could happen,” Ashcraft said. “But meanwhile, I think county voters can take pride in having backed the winner in two consecutive presidential elections. Not many other Arkansas counties can say the same.”