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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Defining “The South”

There’s always a lot of ongoing talk about the South as a political region, whether it’s as the dreaded source of Republican extremism or the land of hope for a future Democratic comeback. But definitions of “the South” vary, as I discussed at Washington Monthly in the context of a FiveThirtyEight survey on the geographical contours of the region:

“[T]he South” is a politically potent concept in which precision and context are often rather important. The general hazy historical perception is that “the South” during the Civil Rights Era transitioned from being solidly Democratic to being solidly Republican. Actually, as Sean Trende likes to point out, the Republican share of the regional presidential vote was 48% in 1952, 50% in 1956, 46% in 1960 and 49% in 1964–remarkably stable and competitive, though masking some pretty large subregional swings–even before the enactment of the Voting Rights Act. But after that Act, as late as 1976, Jimmy Carter (a southern Democrat, of course) was carrying the region by ten points. In 2000 and 2004, Republicans did indeed carry (if you credit the 2000 Florida results) every state in the former Confederacy. But then in 2008 Barack Obama muddied the waters again by winning Virginia, Florida and North Carolina and won the first two again in 2012.
I’ve gone through this brief history because an awful lot of rhetorical weight has been placed on the impact of the “Republican South” on the GOP, on the conservative movement, on non-southern voters, and on the general tone and character of U.S. politics–and quite rightly so.
Still, subregional variations in the South should by no means be ignored. Last week the New York Times‘ Nate Cohn created a bit of a sensation with a column suggesting (a bit more indiscriminately in the headline that he would have liked) that “southern whites” had now become nearly as overwhelmingly Republican as African-Americans were Democratic. Careful readers noted that Cohn was actually only describing white voters in a band of counties “from the high plains of West Texas to the Atlantic Coast of Georgia.” 2012 exit polls showed Obama winning 37% of the white vote in VA and 31% in NC. Upon my own inquiry, Nate noted on Twitter that the statewide Democratic share of the southern white vote in 2012 varied as follows: Kentucky 33%, Arkansas 26%, Tennessee 25%, South Carolina 22%, Texas 22%, Georgia 19%, Alabama 17%, Louisiana 12% and Mississippi 11%.
So in 2012, a white voter in Kentucky was three times as likely to vote for Obama as a white voter in Mississippi. I’d say that’s a variation worth noting when making generalizations about “the South”–not by Nate Cohn, who was careful, but by the very many people who are going to mis-characterize his work.

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