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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Data Measures Southern Whites Political Drift

Paul Rosenberg’s Open Left post “Class Still Matters Among Southern Whites” provides some interesting trend data showing party self-identification by income percentile in the south over the last half-century. Rosenberg provides tables for each decade from the 1950’s through the 2000’s (based on the American National Election Studies (ANES) Cumulative Datafile) showing a precipitous decline in middle-upper income white southerners identifying themselves as Democrats. As you might expect, the largest shift was from the 1950’s to the 1960s, with a more modest drift toward the GOP after that. There’s really no good news for Dems in the data, other than an increase benefitting Dems at the lowest (0-16) and highest (96-100) income percentiles from the 1990’s to the 2000’s.
Rosenberg’s earlier Open Left post on the topic, “(Southern) White Men Can’t Vote–For All Of Us,” offers more detail on southerners’ party preferences. As late As 2004, 50.7 percent of southerners chose Democratic for party i.d., compared with 41.5 percent choosing the GOP. Comparable ’06 southerner party i.d. statistics are not yet available.
Also, actual voting patterns provide a more complex — and relevant — view than we get from party i.d. statistics. Paul Krugman has reported that 62 percent of southern whites voted Republican in ’06 House races. However, in a later NYT blog post, Krugman cites studies and concludes “… if you look at voting behavior, low-income whites in the South are not very different from low-income whites in the rest of the country…It’s relatively high-income Southern whites who are very, very Republican.”
Moreover, the GOP advantage on issues of concern to southerners is not so overwhelming, as Bob Moser explained in his Nation article “The Way Down South“:

The chasm supposedly yawning between Southern ideology and national norms is wildly, though routinely, overstated. In a 2003 comprehensive study of Southern political attitudes, pollster Scott Keeter found folks still tilting to the right on many issues of race, immigration and the use of military force. But Southerners are just as likely as other Americans to support government regulation, strong environmental protection and social welfare. They’re prochoice, too (though less than the rest of the country), and on another contentious “cultural” issue, gay civil unions, are just slightly less supportive than other Americans. Polls show that young Southern voters, along with the region’s booming Hispanic population, lean Democratic

Before writing off the Democats’ future in the south, take note also of demographic trends indicating strong growth in African American and Latino population in the region. In addition, Despite party i.d. data and congressional votes in ’06, Democrats manage to hold majorities of both houses of the LA, MS, AL, AR, NC and WV state legislatures, and one House in both TN and KY.
Democrats clearly have a future in the South, but you have to look at a broad array of data to see it.

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