President Barack Obama’s landslide victory in 2008 was supposed to herald the beginning of a new Democratic era. And yet, six years later, there is not even a clear Democratic majority in the country, let alone one poised for 30 years of dominance.
It’s not because Obama’s so-called new coalition of young and nonwhite voters failed to live up to its potential. They again turned out in record numbers in 2012. The Democratic majority has failed to materialize because the Republicans made large, countervailing and unappreciated gains of their own among white Southerners.
From the high plains of West Texas to the Atlantic coast of Georgia, white voters opposed Obama’s re-election in overwhelming numbers. In many counties, 90 percent of white voters chose Mitt Romney, nearly the reverse of the margin by which black voters supported Obama.
While white Southerners have been voting Republican for decades, the hugeness of the gap was new. Obama often lost more than 40 percent of Al Gore’s support among white voters south of the historically significant line of the Missouri Compromise. Two centuries later, Southern politics are deeply polarized along racial lines. It is no exaggeration to suggest that in these states the Democrats have become the party of African-Americans and that the Republicans are the party of whites.
The collapse in Democratic support among white Southerners has been obscured by the rise of the Obama coalition. But the white shift is nearly as important to contemporary electoral politics as the Obama coalition. It represents an end, at least temporarily, to the South’s assimilation into the U.S. political and cultural mainstream.
The South gradually became more like the rest of the country starting in the middle of the 20th century, with desegregation, followed by the migration of Northerners to the Sun Belt. Standards of living in the South, which had long trailed the rest of the country, improved. The region was decisive in national elections.
But the South remains culturally distinct. It’s the nation’s most religious and evangelical region. And the so-called culture wars have polarized U.S. politics along religious lines, often pitting the South against the rest of the country.
There’s not much sign that the gap between the South and the rest of the country will narrow. Young voters have moved the rest of the country abruptly to the left on issues like gay marriage and immigration, but young Southern whites are just as conservative as their parents and grandparents. If they remain so, the gap between the South and the rest of the country could grow further. And although an influx of Northerners has transformed metropolitan enclaves of Virginia, North Carolina and Florida into liberal bastions of Yankee expatriates, much of the South remains largely untouched.
It is impossible to discuss Obama’s weakness among Southern whites without mention of race. It is surely a factor, and perhaps even a large one. Obama performed significantly worse than John Kerry among Southern whites, even though both were Northern liberals and 2008 was a far better year for Democrats than 2004. And the pattern of white support in the 2012 presidential election is a reversal of post-Reconstruction presidential elections, when Jim Crow laws rendered blacks ineligible to vote and Democrats won the so-called Solid South by similar margins.
But it is hard to know the extent to which racism is responsible for Obama’s weakness. After all, Obama is not the only Democrat to perform so poorly in recent years. Some white Democratic candidates, like Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, have done worse than Obama among Southern whites. And Obama’s losses are part of a longer-term trend: Kerry, for instance, performed worse than Al Gore, who even fared worse than Michael Dukakis among Southern whites.
The collapse of Democratic support among Southern whites threatens the party’s ability to control government and enact its agenda. Democrats will find it extremely hard to retake the House without reclaiming the majority white, Southern districts once held by the now vanquished group of Democrats known as the Blue Dogs. This November, Southern whites could easily deny Democrats control of the Senate by dismissing Democratic incumbents in North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana.
Overall, though, the pattern is also worrisome for Republicans. The party’s big gains among white Southerners do little good in the Electoral College, which rewards a geographically broad coalition. A stronger Republican showing in Oklahoma or South Carolina makes red states only more red; it doesn’t give the Republicans additional electoral votes.
The problem for Republicans is that the Democratic weakness appears confined to the white South. Even though some analysts suggested that Obama was historically weak among white voters more generally, he fared better than recent Democratic nominees among white voters outside the South. That’s how he won battleground states like Iowa, Colorado, Wisconsin and New Hampshire. Whatever is causing Republicans to excel in the South just isn’t helping them elsewhere.
Moreover, the Republican Party’s increasingly Southern character makes broadening its appeal more challenging. A record 41 percent of Republican voters in the 2012 election hailed from the South. Those voters elected more than half of all House Republicans in 2012 - the first time that Southerners have represented a majority of the House Republican caucus. They have since blocked establishment-led efforts on an immigration overhaul and voted to shut down the government by an 88-to-25 margin in October.
A more moderate Republican presidential candidate, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, would struggle to win Southern primaries, where many voters adhere to conservative orthodoxy.
If the Republicans do eventually attempt to broaden their appeal, the result could be the eventual marginalization of the South within U.S. politics. For now, its focus on cultural issues like same-sex marriage are at least given lip service by the national Republican Party. In the future, they might not even get that courtesy.