Analysis: Centuries later, Scots-Irish attract political courters
When national campaign strategists consider targeting an ethnic voting bloc to swing results in their direction, they typically consider blacks or Hispanics.
Yet, an ethnic group they often overlook — the Scots-Irish — are the voters the Republican Party persuaded in 2010 to swing back to GOP candidates, after they swung toward the Democratic Party in 2006, experts say.
As the 2012 election approaches and both parties eye the White House and U.S. House and Senate seats, strategists from both parties say the Scots-Irish again could be critical to winning.
"They could be the margins in a tight race," said Tom McMahon, a Washington strategist who was executive director of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 through 2009. The DNC, he said, wanted to ensure these voters "would be open-minded to voting for a Democrat," because many are respected in their communities and could influence others.
"We found that when we talked about our core values as a party — equality, fairness, social justice — and how that applied to issues, we immediately made a connection to these voters," he said. Democrats have not been effective with the Scots-Irish voting bloc during the past two years and might need to employ that approach again, McMahon believes.
The Scots-Irish apparently became voters to watch and court without knowing it.
"If they did know they were being focused on as part of a swing vote, they would probably vote in the exact opposite direction," said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist in Washington.
Several hundred thousand Scots-Irish, primarily Presbyterians and other Protestants from the Irish province of Ulster, came to North America during the Colonial era. Fiercely independent, clannish and skeptical of government, many settled in Pennsylvania and helped shape its industrial growth. They understood hardship and hard work.
"By the end of the 17th century, this became the largest migration from Europe to America," said F. Thornton Miller, a professor of U.S. history at the University of Missouri.
These settlers preferred the hill country to coastal areas, building frontier communities across the ridges of the Allegheny Mountains, moving from Pennsylvania into Ohio, and then south into West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama. Often they became squatters, Miller said.
"They were known for fighting Indians, distilling and drinking whiskey. ... They became known as hillbillies," who didn't want to pay for land or to pay taxes, he said.
Today, political strategists might have some difficulty identifying these voters. Many don't identify with their ethnicity and, if they do, they are so distrustful of joining anything that they are hard to pin down, said McMahon and Todd.
"They have maintained their nonconformist nature all through the generations. ... This culture is the bellwether of change in this country, for either party," said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. Considered an authority on the Scots-Irish, Webb recently completed a documentary, "Born Fighting," for the Smithsonian Channel and wrote several books on the subject.
Scots-Irish himself, Webb practices that nonconformist way of life: he was a Republican, then ran as a Democrat for his Senate seat in 2006. He announced this year he would not seek re-election.
Todd determined the Scots-Irish were swing voters by poring over mapping data after the 2008 presidential election. He found a distinct voting pattern: people who rejected President Obama, choosing Hillary Clinton in the primary election and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the general election.
"When I looked at that map, I realized I was looking at where the Scots-Irish had settled, starting with Pennsylvania and Ohio (and moving) diagonally south along the spine of Appalachia," said Todd, who knows a little about these finicky voters because of his own Scottish and Irish bloodline.
He decided as a strategist that it made sense to target House seats Democrats held in areas settled by Scots-Irish families — even if those congressional seats were considered to be "safe" Democratic incumbents.
His theory worked.
Republicans won eight of the 12 seats they targeted. Two GOP losses were in Pennsylvania, where Democratic Reps. Jason Altmire of McCandless and Mark Critz of Johnstown held onto their seats by putting forth a message of maintaining independence from the Democratic Party and government regulation in Washington. That platform appealed to the populist nature of Scots-Irish voters in their districts.
"I campaigned on the same values that my constituents have," Critz said. "That independence from Washington resonates around here. We believe if government leaves us alone and doesn't bother us, we will get the work done."
Seventeen U.S. presidents are of Scots-Irish descent, including Obama, who visited with distant Gaelic relatives in Ireland this week — perhaps because his strategists are beginning to realize he should not ignore these voters.Additional Information:
On the web
To see a sneak preview of a two-part series about the history of the Scots-Irish, go to the Smithsonian Channel's website .
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Two wild-card format hurting Pirates in short term
- Despite age, ‘Trek’ stars enjoy hipster status
- Steelers trade 6th-round pick for Jaguars kicker Scobee
- Bryant suspension opens doors for other Steelers’ receivers
- ATI continues to produce, ship products
- Starkey: The kick returner and the grizzly bear
- Less sleep increases your chance of catching a cold, researchers say
- Potential suspension of Pennsylvania AG’s license unusual
- Puppeteer from Connellsville native has talent
- 4 projects suggested for block grant funding in Connellsville
- Risks don’t get any better as online dating prospers