Racially Polarized Voting Is Getting Extreme in the South

Southern white folks are trending Republican very rapidly. Photo: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

With the duel between a Clinton coalition featuring minority voters and a Trump coalition rooted in the white working class dominating much of the analysis of the 2016 presidential election, the idea of racial polarization in voting is not the primarily Southern preoccupation it used to be.

But make no mistake: In the South, and particularly the Deep South, racially polarized voting is sort of like college football. To use the SEC Network slogan: It Just Means More.

As Harry Enten explains by comparing racial voting patterns in House elections in 2006 and 2014, polarization by race in the South has increased significantly:

In the 2006 House elections, Republicans won Southern white voters [i.e., those in the former Confederate States] by 16 percentage points, 58 percent to 41 percent, according to the CCES [Cooperative Congressional Election Study]. That may seem like a wide margin, but Democrats did well enough with white Southerners to win in several majority-white districts. Democrats like Lincoln Davis and John Tanner won in Tennessee. The majority of Arkansas’s delegation was Democratic …
The 2014 election (the last for which we have CCES data) was a much different story. Southern whites voted Republican 70 percent to 28 percent— a margin of over 40 percentage points, more than double the GOP’s margin among white Southerners in 2006.

Even controlling for the relatively good years Democrats had in 2006 and Republicans in 2014, the shift among whites in the South was notable — there were 24 percent more Republican voters there than voters nationally in 2006, but 39 percent more Republicans in the region eight years later.

If you think that’s a lot of white votes for Republicans, it gets a lot more extreme in the Deep South states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

In 2014, Democrats lost the white vote in the Deep South by about 65 percentage points, 81 percent to 17 percent. That made white voters in the Deep South 61 points more Republican the country as a whole. In 2006, whites in the Deep South were heavily Republican, but Democrats stood a fighting chance. Republicans won Deep Southern whites by about 30 percentage points in the 2006 House elections.

None of this should come as a huge surprise: These same five Deep South states were the very ones that abandoned ancient attachments to the Democratic Party to support Barry Goldwater after he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And there are currently zero white Democrats in the congressional delegations of these five states (John Barrow of Georgia was the last to win a House race, in 2012, and he benefited from a district with a very large African-American voting minority).

Southern Democrats used to look down with pity on their brethren in Alabama and Mississippi, where polarization between white Republicans and black Democrats occurred earliest. Now that state of affairs could be spreading, though transplants and workers in higher education and technology fields have counteracted it to some extent in Georgia and the border states.

One byproduct of racial polarization has been the ability for Republicans to hide racial gerrymandering behind mere partisan motives, which are generally tolerated by the courts. Two challenges to redistricting plans (one in North Carolina, one in Virginia) in the South that are currently before the Supreme Court could test how far the GOP can push that approach. But for the time being, the days of Democrats winning Southern elections by taking 90 percent of African-American votes and 40 percent of white votes appear to be gone with the wind.

Racially Polarized Voting Is Getting Extreme in the South