The ghost of cotton

How vanished plantations still shape American voting

By Sasha Issenberg

BARACK OBAMA'S WINNING map asserted the political dominance of a new, dynamic America, as he flipped blue some of the country's youngest, most diverse, and fastest-growing areas. Yet in the Deep South, the one region where Obama failed to win a state, there is little evidence of that demographic churn. Its political behavior seems tied more closely to antebellum industry than to any of the social changes the country has undergone since.

The accompanying map shows that even this year, cotton remains kingmaker: The map of Obama's Southern voters is strikingly similar to the historical map of cotton production circa 1860, on the eve of the Civil War (a phenomenon pointed out by blogger Allen Gathman).

That skein of support echoes the Black Belt, initially named for the dark fertile soil in which cotton could thrive. The onetime seats of Southern plantation culture are still home, especially in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, to some of the region's largest black populations - the descendants of slaves who became Obama's Southern base. (When African-American political successes are heralded as the "first since Reconstruction," it is because of a brief post-Civil War assertion of black political power in these places.)

"So far as I can learn, the term was first used to designate a part of the country which was distinguished by the colour of the soil," Booker T. Washington wrote of the Black Belt in 1901. "Later, and especially since the war, the term seems to be used wholly in a political sense - that is, to designate the counties where the black people outnumber the white."

Nineteenth-century settlement had its spectral fingerprints elsewhere in Obama's victory: It was in something of a White Belt that he won his party's nomination. The flip side of Obama's poor showing in the Deep South is his strong performance among white Democrats in places that were barely settled while slavery was legal. Obama's biggest margins of the nominating season, after all, came in Idaho, Alaska, and Kansas. These states have one thing in common: They entered the union after the Civil War.

Sasha Issenberg is a reporter in the Globe's Washington bureau and the author of "The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy."