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Morning Jay: Special "Southern Politics in 2010" Edition!

6:30 AM, Oct 13, 2010 • By JAY COST
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My goal between now and Election Day is to run through the major regions of the country to explain the political dynamic in each.  Yesterday, I looked at the Great Lakes Region.  Today, I want to look at the South.

Southern history is a complicated subject, and far too often I read pundits make over-simple and tendentious assertions about the political dynamics in Dixie.  My hope is to avoid that and offer a fair assessment.

There is no doubt that race is a factor in southern politics.  This chart captures the dynamic very well.

As you can see, states with higher proportions of African Americans also tended to be states where whites gave Barack Obama a lower share of the vote. 

But matters are more complicated than the simple black-white dichotomy that this picture appears to present.  Across the 11 states of the South, Obama’s share of the vote among whites improved relative to Kerry in four states (North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia), was unchanged in three (Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee), and declined in four (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi).  Bill Clinton – a white Southern Democrat – failed to win 50% of the white vote in any of these 11 states in 1996.  He even fell short in Arkansas.  So, the 2008 election only emphasized what was an already existing dynamic.

Public opinion data as well as analysis of voting records in Congress indicate quite clearly that the civil rights issue is no longer divisive in the South.  Instead, the main political divide is an economic one – with white Southerners lining up on the Republican side of less governmental involvement in the economy, and black Southerners lining up on the Democratic side of more involvement.  These lines persist across the nation – but in the South they are sharper, especially (as you can see) in states where the racial divide is more even.  

The white South's opposition to the federalization of political and economic power has its roots in the earliest days of the Republic, when James Madison organized congressional opposition to the Hamiltonian banking plan.  This faction ultimately became the Jeffersonian Republican party.  The earliest version of the Democratic party - the Jacksonian faction - was also against the centralization of power, and the early Democracy's base was similarly situated in the South.  Since the New Deal, when the liberal faction gained full control over the Democratic party, the South has made common cause with Northern Republicans to slow or stop the ambitions of the progressive left.  This ideological alliance became a partisan one in 1994, when the GOP won a majority of Southern House districts for the first time since Reconstruction.

African Americans, meanwhile, were largely barred from voting in the South until the 1960s.  Yet in 1936 Northern African Americans swung from the Party of Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal offered work and relief programs to African Americans (even though the party as a whole would not endorse a civil rights plank until 1948).  The GOP made occasional inroads over the next few decades, but the relationship was solidified in the mid-1960s when Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.  This, plus the Democratic emphasis on an expanded safety net, have made African Americans the most loyal Democrats in the United States. 

So, the South has a racial divide that depends largely upon ideology, and this has a great impact on the congressional races in the region.  African Americans were almost entirely concentrated in the South until about World War I, at which point they began a 40-year process of migration into Northern cities, often referred to as the Great Migration.  Today, African Americans in the North tend to be concentrated in geographically small, majority-minority congressional districts in the big urban centers.  But that’s really not the case for most of the South, where the African American population is more rural, more spread out, and more intermingled with the white population, at least in terms of congressional districts.

The following map, courtesy of the National Atlas, shows the distribution of African Americans per county.  Yellow districts show a large concentration, red districts show a small concentration.

What you see here is a semi-circle that essentially runs from southeastern Virginia, south through the Carolinas and into Georgia, then west through Alabama and Mississippi, and finally north along the Mississippi River to Memphis, Tennessee.  This area is often referred to as the “Black Belt,” in reference not only to the racial makeup of these counties, but also the rich, black soil that was amenable to growing cotton.  In fact, you can see the correlation between these heavily African American counties and the production of cotton (in green in this pic):

So now you have a basic idea of the racial dynamic in the South.  How does this affect the congressional elections?

To answer that question, I’ve recreated the methodology I used for the Great Lakes states yesterday.  The following is a map of congressional districts for the South.  Red districts are Republican, blue districts are safely Democratic, and purple districts are those held by Democrats but that are vulnerable, according to RealClearPolitics

If you study this map closely for a minute, you’ll see a pattern that basically tracks the Black Belt.  Congressional districts that hug the Atlantic Coast by and large are safely Republican.  Meanwhile, districts that are to the north or west of the Black Belt are also safely Republican.  The purple and blue districts generally fall inside the Black Belt, with the notable exception of Atlanta. 

Most of the Democrats in the purple districts hold their seats by maintaining some kind of multi-racial voting coalition.  Consider, for instance, Bobby Bright in Alabama’s 2nd Congressional district, in the southeastern corner of the state.  Barack Obama won about 108,000 votes there in 2008, which came largely from African Americans (who comprise about 31% of the district), while Bobby Bright won about 144,000 votes.  So, Bright’s voting coalition included something like 25% to 40% of the white vote, with a big crossover white vote from McCain to Bright.  Other Democrats, like Jim Marshall in GA-8, in the south-central part of Georgia, brought even more whites into their coalitions.   

Democrats like Bright and Marshall have three serious problems this cycle. 

First, African American turnout tends to drop in midterm elections, and it will probably drop an unusually large amount in 2010 (because it was unusually high in 2008).  Fewer African American voters mean that these Democrats have to pick up more votes among whites. 

That could be hard because of the second problem.  Obama did much worse with white voters in the South than he did nationwide (where he won 43%).  Right now, Gallup has President Obama’s job approval among whites at a dangerously low 37%.  It’s an easy bet that it is lower in the South.  In fact, my back of the envelope calculation, based off the Gallup numbers, suggests that it is less than 25% approval.

The third problem for Democrats is that this is clearly a “nationalized” midterm.  My guess is that Bill Clinton was under 50% approval among Southern whites in 1998, but that year’s midterm was not nationalized in the sense that this one is.  Voters today are concerned about the state of the nation, and what we will probably see is a very tight correlation between approval of the President and midterm vote.

All of this adds up to a simple equation: the fewer African Americans that a Southern Democrat has in his or her district, the more endangered he or she is.  We can see this pretty clearly in the following chart.  Race rankings – once again – are courtesy of RealClearPolitics.

This chart includes all southern congressional districts that are south of metropolitan Washington, D.C., east of Texas, and northwest of Jacksonville (all of which are places where the New South’s political/social/economic dynamic creates a different electoral calculus).  As you can see, there is a strong correlation between the district’s racial mixture and the vulnerability of the Democrat. 

In all likelihood, white voters who supported John McCain for president and a Democrat for the House in 2008 are trending toward Republican House candidates.  Reduced African American turnout will only exacerbate what is a very real problem for Southern Democrats.

The good news for Democrats is that the GOP already dominates the Southern congressional delegations, so Democratic losses should be relatively modest.  Even so, I think when the dust settles on November 3rd, we’re going to see a Republican share of Southern congressional seats that is larger than at any point since Reconstruction.

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