Does Obama Herald a New Democratic Era in the South?

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Campaigning recently in Virginia.
Campaigning recently in Virginia. Photo: Getty Images

When you start to sort through what happened in this election, one big question that emerges is: Have the Democrats come back in the South?

Barack Obama beat John McCain by six points; in 2004, George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 2.4. That means there has been a national swing of 8.4 points toward the Democrats over the past four years — but Obama outpolled Kerry by 13.4 points in North Carolina (where he now has a narrow lead), 13.2 points in Virginia, and 9.6 in Georgia (which he lost). In fact, these southern states form one of the four clusters where Obama has overperformed the most, along with the midwestern states around Illinois, the Southwest, and California.

Then there’s the Senate. Democrats took over Republican seats in Virginia and North Carolina, and as of this morning were headed for a runoff in Georgia.

Given that neither John Kerry nor Al Gore carried a single state south of Maryland and that congressional Democrats have for the most part been getting wiped out since the mid-nineties, this looks like quite a turnaround. And it’s being driven by a coalition of voters American politics has never seen before.

From the Civil War through the New Deal up to the sixties, the “Solid South” was a bloc vote for Democrats in national elections; at the local level, property-owning and poor whites battled it out in Democratic primaries, while blacks couldn’t vote at all. But almost from the precise moment John F. Kennedy introduced civil-rights legislation in 1963, Democratic support began to erode in the South. And from Lyndon Johnson until last night, Democratic presidential candidates carried southern states only when they appealed to native pride, as Jimmy Carter did in 1976, or when their populism united economically distressed whites and African-Americans, as Bill Clinton’s did. Despite occasional successes by governors running as progressives, such as Richard Riley in South Carolina, William Winter in Mississippi, and Jim Hunt in North Carolina, it was Republicans’ shrewd exploitation of cultural and racial issues that dominated southern politics for most of the past 40 years.

Obama’s coalition, which actually first started to emerge in statewide races in Virginia over the past three years, threatens to upend all that. And it’s not a populist revival — his strongest states look quite different from the regions Clinton carried in 1992 and 1996. Instead, it’s a union of overwhelming support and turnout among blacks along with cosmopolitan whites — highly educated and younger voters who are more culturally moderate and racially liberal than their ancestors. Key stat: Nationwide, while Obama ran eight points better among nonwhites without college degrees than non-white college grads, he ran seven points better among whites who have college degrees than those without. In the South, it’s no accident that Obama did best in states with big college towns, like Raleigh-Durham, Asheville, and Fayetteville in North Carolina: He flipped red states by stitching together blue enclaves. In this election, Virginia and North Carolina resembled Colorado and Nevada — high-growth states with boatloads of new voters — far more than they looked like Alabama or Mississippi. And now Republicans have to worry that Georgia and even South Carolina may be slipping in the same direction. What’s left for the GOP? States from the Old Confederacy where bourgeois bohemians don’t sprout or resettle, like Texas, plus Appalachia. Obama’s worst states, compared with Kerry in 2004: Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee.

Nobody knows whether the Democrats will be able to maintain their enthusiasm and organization after this initial surge. In 1989, the year the Supreme Court upheld several restrictions on abortion, pro-choice liberals and blacks united to make Douglas Wilder the first African-American governor of Virginia, but his coalition didn’t last. Upon closer examination, however, perhaps this new Democratic base, which Paul Begala derided last spring as “African-Americans and eggheads … the Dukakis coalition,” makes sense. It just might be easier for Democrats to convince southern black voters to make common cause with racially tolerant whites than to ask them to team up with poor whites with whom they’re competing for jobs and other resources. And Barack Obama, an African-American academic, seems to be the right politician to ask them.

It’s definitely something to watch.

Earlier: The Breakdown: Who Elected Obama, and Did They Give Him a Mandate?