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4 Surprising Ways the South's New Political Landscape Is Upending National Politics

"As goes the South, so goes the nation." - W.E.B. DuBois

With the nation's eyes on party conventions in Tampa and Charlotte, the media is cramming to get a handle on the Southern political landscape. The resulting punditry has ranged from thoughtful analysis of changes in the South to rants blaming the region for all (or most) of the nation's ills.

Drawing on the Institute for Southern Studies' 40-year history of tracking politics in the South, including recent in-depth analysis of the demographic changes now dramatically altering the region, here is a short primer in the key trends to watch:


The South is the fastest-growing region in the country. According to the 2010 Census, half of the states with the biggest percentage increase in the country over the last decade were in the 13-state* Southern region.

And while states in the Mountain West had similarly large percentage increases, Southern states are bigger and had larger increases in total numbers. That trend appears to be continuing: The Census Bureau estimates that the states adding the most people between 2010 and 2011 were Texas (529,000), California (438,000), Florida (256,000), Georgia (128,000) and North Carolina (121,000).


With growth comes political clout. Southern states gained eight Congressional seats and Electoral College votes in post-Census redistricting and reapportionment. Today, nearly one-third of the total Electoral College votes needed to be elected president come from Southern states -- and that share will likely grow in the future.

In other words, bypassing the South (for Democrats) or taking the region for granted (for Republicans) is not an option for any party interested in a winning political strategy. That's why the parties are holding their convention in the emerging Southern battleground states of Florida and North Carolina.


Demographics are changing everywhere in the country, but it's happening faster in the South. Here are some of the ways the face of the South is changing:

* New Immigrants: Nine of the 12 states with the fastest-growing Latino/Hispanic populations in the 2010 Census were in the South. The political clout of Latinos is clear in a state like Florida, where Latino eligible voters increased by two-thirds over the last decade and now make up nearly 17 percent of the state's voters. But the Latino electorate is also growing in North Carolina, with registrations doubling since 2008 and making up two percent of voters -- enough to sway a close election.

The key here is a registration gap. In North Carolina, for example, about 60 percent of eligible Latino/Hispanic citizens aren't registered to vote. (For great information on the Latino vote, visit

* The Black Belt: Half of the nation's African-Americans live in Southern states. An under-reported story of the 2010 Census was the growth of black communities in the South -- including an acceleration of return migration from cities in the North and Midwest. The growth is especially clear in cities: Six of the 10 urban areas with the biggest increase in African-Americans were in the South, including Charlotte (number six, 121,500-person increase) and two in Florida (Miami, where the black population grew by 191,700, and Orlando, by 100,600).

* The "Majority-Minority" South: Growing Latino and African-American communities are pushing hundreds of Southern counties towards so-called "majority minority" status. (It's not just those two groups: North Carolina, for example, had the third-biggest increase in Asian-Americans over the last decade.) The number of majority-people of color counties is projected to double over the next generation, a dramatic shift that will make the South increasingly competitive politically.

* The Urban South: Another big change in the Southern electorate is the growth of Southern cities. The 2010 Census showed that, in the South as elsewhere, populations moved to the metro areas. These are now centers of a more diverse, younger and growing South that will increasingly shape the region's political future.

The paradox: Even while cities grow, the South (like the upper Plains West) still tends to be more rural than the rest of the country, creating a growing divide between urban and rural voters. So even though most of the population growth in North Carolina, for example, has been clustered in counties around Charlotte, the Triad and the Triangle, the still-large rural vote was key in the state's recent passage of an anti-gay marriage amendment.


Every state in the South is seeing demographic transition, just at different speeds and to different degrees. Combined with the growth of urban areas and different industries, the question isn't if the South's electorate will change, but when it will affect each state.

A big factor in the electoral power of the new, emerging South are a series of policy changes which are having the net effect of restricting the political voice of younger voters and people of color:

* Voter ID laws in Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and other states are facing fierce resistance -- and effective court challenges -- because of the disproportionate impact they could have on historically disenfranchised voters.

* The ultimate impact of redistricting after the 2010 Census has been to dillute the overall power of African-American and Latino voters, thinly spreading them in most districts and hyper-concentrating them in others.

* Anti-immigrant legislation spearheaded in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and other states has appeared to have a chilling effect on new immigration into targeted Southern states, momentarily slowing -- if not ultimately changing -- their demographic transitions.

In 2012, the ability to mobilize -- or block -- such key constituencies from voting could mean the difference in battleground states like Florida, North Carolina and
Virginia. And in fast-changing states like Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas, these trends will shape the balance of power for decades to come.

( The Institute includes the following 13 states in its definition of the South: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.)

Southern Strategies

Do progressives and Democrats have a future in the South? Ever since the great unpleasantness of last November, a chorus of left-leaning pundits have taken the region's defeats -- no electoral votes for John Kerry, zero-for-five in open races for U.S. Senate -- as a sure sign that the South is a lost cause. Fold up the tent, the doubters say. Focus our energy elsewhere. Or as one indelicate yet frequently forwarded e-mail after the elections put it, "F-ck the South."

Not so fast, say the South's defenders -- especially Southern progressives. Given that almost a third of the country lives in the South and it's growing fast, and that the South still sets the tone for national politics (look at the Tennesseans and Texans who lead the White House and Capitol Hill), ignoring the South is hardly an option.

Besides, there's a rich progressive legacy in the South, and Democrats are far from dead: There are four Southern Democratic governors, hundreds of Democratic state legislators, and in six of 13 Southern states, more registered voters identify as Democrats than Republicans.

Enter "New Strategies for Southern Progress," a gathering of some 200 Democratic Party leaders, academics, journalists and assorted progressives in Chapel Hill, N.C. Convened by Washington, D.C.'s Center for American Progress; the Center for a Better South; and the UNC Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, the conference aimed to "identify pragmatic and innovative solutions to the region's toughest problems" and, more boldly, "chart a new progressive vision for the region."

For inspiration, conference organizers invoked the memory of the LQC Lamar Society, a handful of "New South" moderate-to-liberal Democrats formed in 1969 who championed integration, education and economic development. Lamar Society veterans Hodding Carter III and ex-Mississippi Gov. William Winter opened the conference, and for Southerners and South-watchers too young to remember a day before unending GOP victory speeches, hearing the legacy of Jimmy Carter, Reubin Askew of Florida, Dale Bumpers of Arkansas and North Carolina's own Terry Sanford was a reminder that the "Mind of the South" is never fixed, and can always be changed again.

From grassroots activists to party insiders, everyone came with open eyes about the challenges -- and potential -- Southern progressives face. "Conservatives are in charge because they toiled for years and years to come up with the answers," observed Arkansas State Rep. Joyce Elliot, a three-term African-American legislator. "It's going to take time for us, too." But attendees left visibly conflicted on some fundamental questions: What kind of politics can -- and should -- win in the region? And what are our bedrock values and long-term vision for the future?

The differences came into focus on day two, during a panel charting the changing attitudes of the Southern electorate. The pollsters, consultants and academics honed in on a key reason for Democratic losses in the South: the defection of the white moderate. "We've lost the white working-class male," said David "Mudcat" Saunders, the much-quoted Virginia consultant and ambassador of the "NASCAR dads" strategy.

Poll analyst Ruy Teixeira rolled out a compelling set of numbers to back up the claim: Although the ideology of the Southern electorate hasn't changed over the last decade -- it's now 14 percent liberal, 41 percent moderate and 45 percent conservative, only a hair to the right of 1996 -- voting patterns have. Bill Clinton got 46 percent to Bob Dole's 44 percent of the Southern white moderate vote in '96; in 2004 Kerry had a 58-to-41 deficit to Bush among the same voting group. Even accounting for Clinton's Southern touch, it's clear that Democrats have lost ground.

How to win them back? Rally white, working voters around economic populist themes against the "corporate elite," said Professor Susan Howell of New Orleans -- although she counseled against talking about race. Bring the debate back to "jobs, jobs, jobs" -- but don't talk about taxing the wealthy or get caught up in "cultural" issues, argued Pope "Mac" McCorkle, a strategist for North Carolina's recently re-elected Democratic Gov. Mike Easley. Embrace those to the right -- including, in Mudcat's opinion, the Sons of Confederate Veterans ("which has two black members, by the way" he added). And definitely find religion.

Many found the blueprint shortsighted, to say the least. "Jesus and NASCAR," said an organizer for a policy group in North Carolina, "that may be a strategy for electing a Democrat in the next two years, but a long-term progressive vision?" The Rev. James Evans, a white minister at Auburn First Baptist Church in Alabama, noted that "not talking about race won't make it go away. When we talk about taxes, we're talking about race. When we talk about education, we're talking about race. When we're talking about jobs, we're talking about race. We have to deal with it."

Or as State Rep. Elliot from Arkansas put it, "Are you aware of the tension that's developing when, in your attempt to reach out to NASCAR people, you move away from progressive issues, like we saw in the last election?"

In the meantime, the descendants of the Lamar Society are gearing up for political victories. "We need to reframe the debate so we can win," said Andy Brack, a former aide to South Carolina Sen. Ernest Hollings who will lead the new Center for a Better South think tank. The center will join other party institutes in the works, including Sen. John Edwards' new Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, based at UNC, Chapel Hill, and the New South Project, led by a group of senators including Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas -- all of which will aim to boost Southern Democrats with a new message and strategy.

As for those at the conference who trace their lineage to civil rights workers, labor activists, populists and other Southerners in search of deeper change -- whose insurgencies made many past political gains in the South possible -- they may have to look elsewhere for a long-term vision. As one grassroots policy advocate said, "This [conference] isn't about building a progressive movement. For that, we need our own 'Southern Strategy.'"