Global Public Square

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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