A Liberal Dixie? What You May Not Know About the Changing South
The following piece first appeared in the American Prospect.
The final rally of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign took place on symbolically charged ground: the rolling fields of Manassas, site of the first major battle of the Civil War. It was the last stop on an election eve spent entirely in the South: Jacksonville, Charlotte, and finally Northern Virginia. In the autumn chill, an estimated 90,000 people spread out across the county fairgrounds and waited for hours to cheer a new president—and a new South.
By this point, Virginians knew Obama well. In February, he had beaten Hillary Clinton 2 to 1 in the state’s Democratic primary, a blow to her floundering bid. After clinching the nomination, he’d kicked off his general-election campaign in rural Virginia and been a frequent visitor since. Bucking conventional wisdom, Obama’s team had invested heavily in three Southern states: not just perennial battleground Florida but also Virginia and North Carolina, which had not voted Democratic for president since 1964 and 1976, respectively. No Democrat—not even Bill Clinton—had made a serious attempt to win North Carolina or Virginia since Ronald Reagan claimed it in 1980. But Obama was gambling on an emerging South—one that is younger than the rest of the country, far more ethnically diverse than the old black-and-white paradigm, and more liberal-leaning than any Southern generation to precede it.
That emerging South was arrayed in the dark hills around Obama as he flashed into the spotlight. On soil where whites once fought to the death for the right to enslave blacks, this throng had gathered to hail the soon-to-be first black man to be elected president. The next day, Obama carried all three of his Southern targets—55 electoral votes for the party. For Southerners, the message was unmistakable: The future has arrived. The Solid South is dead.
When Americans talk about the South, they tend to be talking about the past. When they talk about Southern politics, they tend to be talking about the old, stereotyped “Solid South”—that uniformly conservative, racist, anti-union, snake-handling cluster of former Confederate states that voted en masse for Democrats from the pre–Civil War through civil rights, then switched their allegiance to the former “party of Lincoln” beginning in the 1970s. Once LBJ and the Democrats betrayed the cause of white supremacy and Richard Nixon cooked up the “Southern Strategy,” the region became as solidly Republican as it once was Democratic. End of story.
Southern politics has never been quite so uncomplicated as that. It took decades for Republicans to outnumber Democrats, and Republican control of the region has never matched the Democrats’ former hegemony. The South has been contested ground for 40 years, with the GOP dominating federal elections and gradually cutting into the Democrats’ hold on state and local offices—culminating in 2012, when Arkansas’s legislature became the last to go Republican. (Virginia’s Senate has a partisan split.)
Over the next two decades, it will become clear to even the most clueless Yankee that the Solid South is long gone. The politics of the region’s five most populous states—Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Texas—will be defined by the emerging majority that gave Obama his winning margins. The under-30 voters in these states are ethnically diverse, they lean heavily Democratic, and they are just beginning to vote. The white population percentage is steadily declining; in Georgia, just 52 percent of those under 18 are white, a number so low it would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.
By the 2020s, more than two-thirds of the South’s electoral votes could be up for grabs. (The South is defined here as the 11 states of the former Confederacy.) If all five big states went blue, with their 111 electoral votes, only 49 votes would be left for Republicans. (That’s based on the current electoral-vote count; after the next census, the fast-growing states will have more.) Win or lose, simply making Southern states competitive is a boon to Democrats. If Republicans are forced to spend time and resources to defend Texas and Georgia, they’ll have less for traditional battlegrounds like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Even if Democrats aren’t competitive in those states for another decade, they will benefit from connecting with millions of nonvoters who haven’t heard their message. They are building for a demographic future that Republicans dread: the time when overwhelming white support will no longer be enough to win a statewide election in Texas and Georgia.