Analysis: A New South Rising

2008 proved that the South is politically competitive and growing in importance. But the pundits are telling a different story.

On the day before Election Day -- that final moment when candidates decide where they want to make their last case to the voters they want to win the most -- Barack Obama chose to visit three big battleground states: Florida, North Carolina and Virginia.

Since 1968, these Southern states had voted Democratic for president only six times between them. And president-elect Obama was about to ask voters in these states -- all members of the old Confederacy -- to vote the first African-American ever into the White House.

Obama's Southern Strategy worked: the states went blue, and history was made.

But just as Southern Democrats were clinking glasses of sweet tea in celebration, the powerhouses of political punditry -- especially in the North -- made a bizarre move: They turned against the region that had just given one-third of its Electoral College votes to the President-elect.

Ignoring McCain's dominance in, say, the Great Plains and Upper Mountain states -- Obama's most crushing defeats came in Idaho, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming -- legions of commentators instead curiously trained their guns on the South, dismissing the region as politically irrelevant, abastion of red-state conservatism uniquely out of touch with national trends.

Gawker, a popular New York-based website, put a finer point on it: "North Finally Wins Civil War."


It's a familiar refrain. The Obama campaign heard it when they first began talking about changing the political map, including putting several Southern states in play. Leading the pack, as always, was the relentless Tom Schaller, the oft-quoted political scientist whose passion for downplaying the South's political significance has frequently put him on the wrong side of history.

Just this past July, Schaller declared with typical bombast in a New York Times column that "Mr. Obama can write off Georgia and North Carolina." That certainly would come as a surprise to Obama, who won N.C. and made McCain fight for the Peach State.

It would also be news to McCain and Sarah Palin, who scheduled seven campaign stops in North Carolina in the final month leading into the election. As for Georgia, McCain is now headed there to help fellow Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, forced into a run-off largely because of the surge of Obama voters.

This wasn't the first time Schaller's "forget the South" thesis was proven wrong. In 2006,  Schaller famously declared he was "certain"now-Senator Jim Webb (D) would lose in Virginia. But the string of bad calls and Obama's success in the South hasn't silenced Schaller and the rest of the "writeoff the South" crowd -- oddly enough, it seems to have emboldened them.


In fact, the 2008 elections provided two important lessons about the South, clear to any willing to see them: First, the South is rapidly changing in a way that makes it a more -- not less -- politically competitive region.

And second, despite the fevered hopes of certain wings of the Northern intelligentsia, the South's political clout is rapidly growing -- making the South a centerpiece of any strategy for national political power.

How is the South changing? The 2008 elections offered a glimpse of several major trends and realignments that are shaking up the South:

The Urban South: The South's voters are increasingly based in rapidly growing urban areas. Seven of the country's 10 fastest growing cities are in the South. Metro areas like Atlanta, Northern Virginia, and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. are becoming centers of political power -- which, as 2008 showed, increasingly favor Democrats.

Those infamous "red/blue" maps which show vast stretches of the country dominated by a single color conceal a political truth: 50% of the nation's voters in 2008 came from just 237 counties with a density of 500 people per square mile or more. Eighty-four of those counties -- 35% of the national total -- were in Southern states. Out of those 84 Southern high-density counties, 58% went for Obama.

Overall, in 13 Southern states Obama won over half of voters who identified as "urban" in exit polls; in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia, he won over 60%. Even more striking, out of the 111 urban areas nationally that flipped from Republican to Democrat in 2008, 32 were in the South.

A New Generation of White Voters: Much pundit vexing about the South focused on white voters: A frequently circulated New York Times map showed counties that voted more GOP in 2008 than in 2004, and was dominated by majority-white counties in Appalachia and the lower Great Plains:

McCain Belt.jpg
This was hardly a surprise: As Timothy Noah pointed out in Slate, whites nationally haven't voted for a Democrat in 40 years (see this chart).

The percent of Southern whites who supported Obama was a bit lower -- about one-third, compared to 43% nationally. But perhaps the more interesting story is that in three Southern states -- North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina -- Obama gained with white voters at a rate higher than the national average.

That was in part due to another ignored story: a dramatic shift among young Southern white voters. In six Southern states, 40% of whites under the age of 30voted for Obama. In North Carolina, Obama's level of young white support was 56% -- one of the highest in the nation.

The Multi-Racial South: But the focus on white voters is, of course, deceptive -- and has more than a tint of racism, given the long history of people equating "Southern" with "white."

This election year also showed the growing political power of African-Americans, Latinos and other voters of color. As the AP reported, Obama was helped greatly by a 20% rise nationally in turnout among minority voters.

This was definitely the case in the South. Half of the nation's African-American population lives in the South, and the surge in black voters not only boosted Obama but changed dozens of down-ticket Southern races. In Georgia, Democratic challenger Jim Martin forced a run-off for the U.S. Senate despite only winning 30% of the white vote.

In fact, African-American voters are the biggest reason why this map from The New York Times -- which includes counties which voted more Democratic -- looks like it does, with a strong band of blue running through the South:

More Dem Counties.jpgThis election also offered a glimpse of another emerging reality: the South's multi-racial political future, including a rapidly-growing number of "majority-minority" counties.

The South has the fastest-growing Latino population in the country, which combined with a large African-American population has given rise to hundreds of counties that will have a non-white political majority within a generation. The map below shows counties that are currently over 40% "majority-minority:"

Thumbnail image for MajorityMin Counties.jpgThe electoral clout of these majority-minority counties will only grow over the next generation. But you can already see its influence today: For example, George Campbell of USA Today offered this portrait of Gwinnett County, GA -- a once-solid GOP white Atlanta suburb that is giving way to multi-racial political power:

Wedged between Atlanta's close-in suburbs in DeKalb County, where the minority turned into the majority in the 1990s, and the leafy, sprawling enclaves of mini-mansions and estates to the north, Gwinnett County is one of the most diverse, polyglot jurisdictions in the country. More than 100 languages are spoken in county schools. A majority of students are minorities.

But just 18 years ago, in the 1990 Census, Gwinnett was 90% white, rock-ribbed Republican and Exhibit A in the pantheon of suburban Sun Belt counties that supposedly would mold and sustain realignment to apermanent Republican majority.

Today, it is on the verge of becoming majority-minority, with Latinos, African Americans and Asians in near equal proportions, and the GOP vote is shriveling. Twenty years ago, George H.W. Bush got 75% of the presidential vote. Four years ago, George W. Bush got 66%. On Nov. 4, John McCain drew just 55%.

This multi-racial shift is at different stages in different parts of the South, but there's no question about the overall trend -- a key reason why Democrats should be encouraged about their prospects in the region.


The media's zeal to write off the South now is odd not only because it comes at a time when Southern states are so rapidly changing. It also comes at a moment when the South's political clout is dramatically growing.

You wouldn't know this from reading a piece like Adam Nossiter's Nov. 11 story in The New York Times titled "For the South, a Waning Hold on National Politics." Nossiter's confused and contradictory piece -- filed from a small town in Alabama -- makes several sleights of hand to make its case, and ultimately falls apart upon serious scrutiny.

Nossiter commits two of the cardinal sins in political analysis of the South. First, he moves the goal posts, changing the definition of "the South" to suit his purposes. For example, in paragraph two we learn that, in Nossiter's estimation, "voters from Texas to South Carolina and Kentucky may have marginalized their region for some time to come."

Here Nossiter is channeling Republican Sen. John Warner, who famously dismissed Obama's lead in Southern states by saying that "Florida, North Carolina and Virginia aren't really part of the South."

How soon the pundits forget: Just years ago, these states were electing Senators like Jesse Helms and George "Macaca" Allen, and being held up as evidence of the GOP's "Southern dominance" -- the very reason people like Schaller wrote them off in the first place.

Yet once these Southern states -- which also happen to be among the biggest in the region -- vote Democratic, poof! They're no longer part of the South. Such circular reasoning is just as bad as dismissing the over 19 million voters in 13 Southern states who cast votes for Obama.

But to admit Obama's strong showing in much of the South would also force Nossiter to acknowledge non-white voters in the South. As far as I can tell, Nossiter fails to quote a single non-white expert or person-on-the-street in his piece. But he is more than willing to write paragraphs like this, which perpetuate a frankly racist notion that Southerners are by definition white:

Less than a third of Southern whites voted for Mr. Obama, compared with 43 percent of whites nationally. By leaving the mainstream so decisively, the Deep South and Appalachia will no longer be able to dictate that winning Democrats have Southern accents or adhere to conservative policies on issues like welfare and tax policy, experts say.
Note the casual conflation of "the Deep South and Appalachia" with "Southern whites" -- especially bizarre given that the Deep South also includes the Black Belt. Of is the "accent" of a black man in Alabama whose family goes back 300 years not "Southern" enough for Nossiter?

Indeed, Nossiter's piece is littered with quotes from a predictable cast of small-town Republican white characters: The inevitable white woman who "fears" aggressive black men, the white trucker who doesn't like Muslims. For special impact, he ends with one Gail McDaniel, a cosmetologist Nossiter corners at the Shop and Save, who's concerned about "abortion and same-sex marriage" -- and as we all know, same-sex marriage is only a big issue in the South.

Apparently, Nossiter couldn't find any African-American voters in Alabama, a state with the 7th-highest black population in the country (26%) and scene of one of the most memorable events of the civil rights movement. Or any other non-white voters, for that matter, in a state where 22 counties are "majority minority" [pdf] -- and many more counties where the under-20 population is majority non-white, a sign of the state's political future.

Come to think of it, even white Democrats -- 47% of whom in Alabama pulled the lever for Obama -- seem to escape the trepid New York reporter.

But Nossiter also misses the biggest political reality of all: that the South's political clout isn't waning, but significantly increasing.

The South growing is faster than almost anywhere in the country: Two-thirds of the nation's fastest-growing counties are in the South. This not only means that the South is obviously "relevant" to a growing number of people, because they live there. It also means that the South's political influence in Congressional seats and choosing presidents is poised to expand, as the AP reported earlier this year:

Fast-growing Southern states could gain nine new congressional seats after the 2010 census, largely at the expense of their neighbors to the north, judging from the latest government data.

Georgia and North Carolina' delegations in the U.S. House would overtake New Jersey's, for example, while Florida would catch up with New York, according to projections based on a July 2007 population snapshot released by the Census Bureau last month. Texas would be the biggest gainer ...
Does that sound like a "waning" region to you?

Barack Obama's victories in the South -- and his ability to mobilize voters in record numbers across the region -- proved the "write off the South" mentality is remarkably out of touch with today's highly dynamic and competitive region.

And the South's rapidly growing size and political might also show that dismissing the South is a recipe for long-term political suicide -- at least for any party that has national political aspirations.

Democrats across the country can only hope their party's leaders take a page from Obama, and when looking at the South, they ignore the Nossiters and Schallers and instead say, "Yes, We Can."