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This is why Thad Cochran is linking his hopes to black voters

Cochran greets voters. (AP Photo/Oxford Eagle, Bruce Newman)

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) trails challenger Chris McDaniel in the state's Republican senate primary run-off by eight points according to a poll earlier this month. As the Associated Press noted earlier this week, numbers like those have Cochran scrambling to cobble together a coalition that can put him over the top, mixing outreach to conservative Republican voters with a decidedly more moderate push to get black voters to support him in what will likely be a fairly low turn-out vote on Tuesday.

The New York Times focused on Cochran's outreach to black voters in an article on Friday. "We’ve got efforts reaching out to black voters in Mississippi who want to vote for Thad because they like what Thad is for," the paper quotes campaign adviser Austin Barbour as saying. (Barbour is the nephew of former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour.) The outreach is explicit and well-funded, involving black churches and television ads depicting Cochran with black Mississippians.

McDaniel's campaign earned a first-place finish in the primary last month by emphasizing his conservative credentials. When asked by the Times for its response to Cochran's black outreach, McDaniel's team emphasized that Cochran was reaching out to "liberal Democrats," who, it seems, happen to largely be black.

That June 3 primary that McDaniel won with a little less than 50 percent of the vote overlapped with Mississippi's racial lines in interesting ways. Below are maps showing, at left, the percentage of each county's population that is black. At right, the percentage of the vote in each county that went for McDaniel.

Black population

Support for McDaniel

If it appears that counties with larger black populations voted more heavily against McDaniel, that's largely right. Here's the relationship between black population and support for McDaniel. It's noisy, but there's a link.

McDaniel's folks are certainly right, in part: Those counties with higher black populations are probably less conservative (and have a larger Democratic population) than those areas that aren't. But this is where Cochran sees his opportunity. If people in those counties didn't vote in the Democratic primary held the same day as the Cochran-McDaniel battle, under state law they can vote in the Republican run-off. And many people didn't vote in that contest, in which former Rep. Travis Childers won handily. The vote total in the Republican contest topped 310,000. On the Democratic side it was only about 83,000.

In the top ten counties that Cochran won, black residents outnumber white voters by over 186,000. That's total population, not just voting age and not just those registered to vote. But compare that to the ten counties that voted most heavily for McDaniel. There, white residents outnumber blacks by over 116,000, according to the Census Bureau's 2012 population estimates.

What's more, turnout in the Republican primary in the state's most black counties was about half that in the least black counties. (Using vote total-versus-population as a rough turnout estimate.) If Cochran can improve turnout in those counties on his behalf, it could help eat into McDaniel's lead.

At the end of the day, though, this is all a very optimistic scenario for Cochran. A special Senate election wouldn't normally attract a lot of voter attention, much less for people voting across party lines. But Cochran needs all the help he can get.