Southern Whites’ Loyalty to G.O.P. Nearing That of Blacks to Democrats

Nate Cohn, New York Times, April 24, 2014

President 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Obama’s re-election in overwhelming numbers. In many counties 90 percent of white voters chose Mitt Romney, nearly the reversal of the margin by which black voters supported Mr. Obama.

While white Southerners have been voting Republican for decades, the hugeness of the gap was new. Mr. 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. {snip}

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It is impossible to discuss Mr. Obama’s weakness among Southern whites without mention of race. It is surely a factor, and perhaps even a large one. Mr. 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. {snip}

But it is hard to know the extent to which racism is responsible for Mr. Obama’s weakness. After all, Mr. 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 Mr. Obama among Southern whites. And Mr. Obama’s losses are part of a longer-term trend. Mr. Kerry, for instance, performed worse than Al Gore, who even fared worse than Michael Dukakis among Southern whites.

{snip} This November, Southern whites could easily deny Democrats control of the Senate by dismissing Democratic incumbents in North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana.

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The Republicans are not doomed to become a regional party. But 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. The road to the nomination without the South, which holds such a large share of the party’s elected officials and voters, is narrow and long.

If the Republicans do eventually attempt to broaden their appeal, the result could be the eventual marginalization of the South within American politics. For now, 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.

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