March 7th, 2012
12:39 PM ET

How the changing South will affect U.S. elections

Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article from the ‘Oxford Analytica Daily Brief’. Oxford Analytica is a global analysis and advisory firm that draws on a worldwide network of experts to advise its clients on their strategy and performance.

Since the 1980s, Republican dominance in the South has given the party a substantial advantage in presidential elections. Southern states had been transforming into a Republican-leaning region since the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

For years, conventional wisdom said that only a Democratic ticket that was Southern and more conservative than the national-level party could win the presidency. It was thought that a Democratic Party candidate had no chance of winning the presidency without holding down losses in the South, as the all-Southern ticket of Bill Clinton (Arkansas) and Al Gore (Tennessee) did in the 1990s.

Yet in 2008, the non-Southern Democratic ticket of Barack Obama (Illinois) and Joe Biden (Delaware) captured the once-reliably Republican states of Virginia and North Carolina. Their victory reflected demographic and political changes that have transformed these states, and are (to a lesser extent) affecting other parts of the South. This shift could affect the outcome of November's presidential election.

Obama was the first Democrat to win Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and he did so by a comfortable margin (52.7% to John McCain's 46.4%). Influential political scientist V.O. Key once described Virginia as unimportant: A ‘political museum piece’. Since the late 1960s, the state has been two-party competitive in elections below the presidential level. However, after 1944 and until 2008, Virginians supported Republican presidential candidates in every election except 1964.

In recent years Virginia has experienced very significant population growth from immigrant communities with strong Democrat voting preferences (combined African-American and Hispanic voters now comprise close to one-third of the state electorate). The Democrats' recent setbacks in Virginia (the 2009 state elections and 2010 mid-term congressional ones) are attributable to the substantial decline in turnout of core Democratic party constituencies, especially minority voters. Obama's ability to win Virginia again this year ultimately depends on whether he can re-energize these groups.

North Carolina was once heavily Democrat in voting for presidential candidates. Then came Republican Richard Nixon's ‘southern strategy’ of appealing to lower- and middle-income white resentment of minorities’ gains. Nixon's 1972 re-election was a turning point: the previously solid Democrat state supported him heavily. As with Virginia, McCain’s defeat in North Carolina in 2008 does not mean it is emerging again as a blue (Democrat) state. Yet here too demographic trends signal more competitive presidential races in the future. African-Americans now comprise as much as 25% of the electorate in some state races, and these voters are overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning.

North Carolina is also one the fastest growing states in the country, with a population increase near 10% since the 2004 election. Most of the growth has been in large metropolitan areas such as Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham - areas which attract young, single, college-educated professionals (many originally from northern states) who tend to lean heavily Democratic. Exit polling data from recent election cycles show that such newer North Carolina residents are less conservative, less Republican, less white and less religious than long-term residents.

These shifting demographic and voting patterns in the two states increase Obama's chances of victory: they off-set places like Ohio where support for the Democratic Party has waned. Over time, Virginia and North Carolina could also gradually evolve into a haven for more moderate political leaders and ideas.

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soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Due to mobility the classic north/south divide shouldn't play much of a role in today's America, but the demographics do. The African-American, the Hispanic and othe groups as well as women might be the ones who decide the elections' outcome. Alabama and Mississippi, the two Southern states with evangelical conservatives and low income voters don't matter so much for Obama anyway.

    March 7, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  2. Eddie Fonseca

    In America the race to be the head of state has been determined by the South the good old boy's as they sit and drink their beers and listen to the greatest hits of Garth Brooks in the back of their old Ford pick up trucks all night long. Hell I love a great Garth Brooks or George Strait song when drinking a couple of cold ones, with a couple of down to earth Southern women who have great morals and sitting in the back yard with them talking about the next president of the good old USA. The point is that we need a commander and chief who is well educated and can bridge the gap between the voters in New York and the deep South between the African and Americans and Hispanic voters who will determine the next president in 2016. As Americans we know the South has always been a mysteries part of our culture, that at times has shocked and amazed us with their unique values which has determined many presidential votes in our great nation., Darius Rucker once said in the song Wagon Wheel If I die in Raleigh I will die free as Americans we need to live free and vote for someone who has our best interest at heart from education to health care also job creations in America. So let us in one voice from Bronx New York to Mississippi we want a president who can deliver his or her promise to clean up Washington and give the middle class for years to come.

    June 24, 2015 at 11:09 pm | Reply

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