This year, as we approach a momentous election, something’s happening that some of us old southern-bred progressives weren’t sure we’d live to see: Large swaths of the South are competitive in both presidential and Senate races. This development is typified by my home state of Georgia, where there are two red-hot Senate races, two red-hot suburban House races, and better than a puncher’s chance that Joe Biden will win the state’s 16 electoral votes.
It brings back some old memories. Fifty years ago this autumn, a wave of new, non-racist southern Democratic governors was elected and was widely proclaimed to represent a New South. There was Dale Bumpers in Arkansas, who soundly defeated the old race-baiter Orval Faubus in the Democratic primary before dispatching Republican incumbent Winthrop Rockefeller. There was Floridian Reuben Askew, who demolished conservative Republican incumbent Claude Kirk. In South Carolina, John West defeated party-switching Republican segregationist Albert Watson. And in Georgia, former state legislator Jimmy Carter defeated Republican journalist Hal Suit and almost immediately began repudiating the vestiges of segregation.
It was an exciting moment in southern politics. Black voters, gradually emancipated politically by the Voting Rights Act, joined forces with some northern transplants and urbanizing white voters to bury the racist southern Democratic Party of the Jim Crow era. (Aside from Alabama, where George Wallace reclaimed his hold on the state Democratic Party after he lost it temporarily when his wife and designated successor, Lurleen Wallace, died.)
And it was sudden. Four years earlier, the soon-to-be symbol of this transformation was in a different place. I was a kiddie volunteer for Jimmy Carter’s first gubernatorial campaign in 1966; he narrowly lost a spot in a Democratic runoff to the notorious racist Lester Maddox, famed for wielding an ax handle against Black people trying to get service at his Atlanta restaurant (which he ultimately closed in lieu of desegregation). Neither Maddox nor his Republican rival won a majority of the vote, so Georgia’s law at the time made the legislature pick the winner of the contest. I will never forget my shock in hearing State Senator Jimmy Carter clearly announce his vote for “Lester G. Maddox.” Four years later, I was not backing the peanut farmer from Plains in his second gubernatorial bid. But he surprised us all in his inaugural address:
I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over … No poor, rural, weak, or black person should ever have to bear the additional burden of being deprived of the opportunity of an education, a job or simple justice.
The emergence of non-racist white southern Democrats leading a new biracial coalition initiated a long process wherein conservative white southerners drifted toward the GOP. For a very long time, Republicans held the advantage in this exchange. But for a brief moment after 1970, things were looking up for a biracial Democratic coalition.
This moment of hope peaked in Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, when the Georgia governor defeated Wallace in most southern primaries and then gained his endorsement, subsequently putting together a mind-bending coalition of Black and conservative white voters united by regional pride (between Andrew and Lyndon Johnson, no president was elected from a state that had been part of the Confederacy). Carter won every state of the former Confederacy (producing huge swings compared with Hubert Humphrey’s performance in 1968 and George McGovern’s in 1972) except Virginia; he won the border states of Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri as well as southern-inflected areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania that helped keep those states in the Democratic column. Carter also became a sort of figure of emancipation and political awakening among his fellow white Evangelical Christians — the same group that gave Donald Trump more than 80 percent of their votes in 2016.
Until now, the two Carter elections have been the high-water mark of post-civil-rights-era Democratic performance in the South, with a faint echo in 1992 when Bill Clinton won his own state of Arkansas, plus Georgia, Louisiana, and running mate Al Gore’s Tennessee. When the Carter coalition fell in 1980, it fell hard. Southern Democrats held on at the state and local levels for a good while, even into the current century in some places, but the handwriting was on the wall. Republicans won every state of the former Confederacy in the 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004 presidential elections. Beginning in 1992 and 1994, Republicans began a brisk conquest of southern congressional seats, in part by packing Black voters into gerrymandered House districts that left other districts vulnerable to GOP gains among white voters. A rapidly shrinking cohort of white moderate-to-conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats held out, although voting more and more often with Republicans in Congress, even as some gave up and switched parties.
Residual racism, of course, was an abiding wellspring for this trend. Indeed, beginning in the 1990s there was much talk of the “southernization” of the Republican Party as the migration of racially motivated hard-core conservatives into the GOP introduced an ideologically rigid, even savage tone into the councils of the Party of Lincoln.
Throughout the last quarter of the 20th century and well into the 21st, the arithmetic for Republican domination of the South was to roll up huge margins among white voters in suburban and rural areas that offset the growth of the Black voting population of urban areas, increasingly supplemented with northern transplants and “knowledge workers.” The omega point for this trend was the midterm election of 2014, when, for a brief moment, Republicans controlled every state legislative chamber, every governorship, and all but one Senate seat in the former Confederacy.
But underneath the surface, this demographic arithmetic has been steadily reversing itself as minority voting participation blossomed and college-educated white voters began spurning Republicans. Virginia flipped first; the sole southern state to spurn Carter has gone Democratic in three straight presidential contests and isn’t even competitive in 2020. North Carolina followed, going Democratic in 2008 for the first time since 1976, and has remained competitive, as has Florida, the ultimate national battleground state.
Carter’s own Georgia, with a steadily rising Black, Latino, and Asian voting population centered in Atlanta and its increasingly diverse suburbs, is widely expected to be the next southeastern state to “turn blue.” In 2018, Democrats picked up one House seat and nearly won another in the north Atlanta suburbs, which were a Republican stronghold until very recently. Their gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams, came within an eyelash of winning back the statehouse that Democrats had last won in 1998.
Like Georgia, Texas is a state where Democrats made startling urban and suburban gains in 2018 and seem to be approaching a demographic tipping point. They flipped two House seats despite a heavily gerrymandered district map and improved their vote share almost everywhere, while Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke broke fundraising records and threw a serious scare into Ted Cruz. And that midterm election built on the gains of 2016, when Hillary Clinton reduced Barack Obama’s 15-point margin of defeat in 2012 to less than nine points.
Even in South Carolina, where the South’s conservative Republican revolution really began when the segregationist senator Strom Thurmond joined the GOP in 1964, the same coalition of Black and upscale white suburban voters is beginning to make serious inroads into Republican rule. This year, Democrat Jaime Harrison, one of the most prodigious fundraisers in U.S. political history, is running even in the polls with veteran Republican senator Lindsey Graham. No Democrat has won a Senate or gubernatorial race in the Palmetto State since 1998. It also appears that Biden may well win the highest percentage of the presidential vote there than any Democrat since — you guessed it — Jimmy Carter.
It’s important to understand, however, that the future Democratic coalition in the South is different from the one Republicans defeated a generation ago. From Carter’s day until very recently, the southern Democratic formula for success was to run moderate-to-conservative white candidates with residual appeal among rural white voters and count on monolithic Black support to lift them to victory over suburban-based Republican candidates. It created some understandable unhappiness among Black Democrats who were often taken for granted and were hardly ever represented in major offices. It also sustained a southern wing of the Democratic Party, the Blue Dogs, that was often out of sync ideologically with the national party and was unreliable in national elections and in Congress.
In Georgia, the last gasp of the old Blue Dog approach to Democratic politics was breathed in 2014 when two scions of legendary white Democrats headed the ticket: Michelle Nunn (daughter of Sam, the former senator) for Senate, and Carter’s own grandson Jason for governor. Both ran traditional centrist campaigns, and both lost. They were outpaced in 2018 by Abrams, a Black progressive lawmaker from Atlanta, who represented a new formula for southern Democratic politics: a truly multiracial and more ideologically progressive coalition that’s good news for Democrats both regionally and nationally. Similarly, in Florida, forthright Black progressive Andrew Gillum upset still another centrist white Democratic scion, Gwen Graham, in the 2018 primary and posted the best gubernatorial performance of any Democrat since 1994. In 2020, South Carolina’s Harrison fits the same mold, as do white Democrats like Senate candidate MJ Hegar in Texas — perhaps somewhat moderate by national standards but not the southern Democrats of yore who ran away from the national party and often aped conservative talking points.
So are Democrats on the brink of becoming a new, more racially equitable and progressive version of the successful Democrats of Jimmy Carter’s New South era? There are headwinds, to be sure. As Perry Bacon Jr. astutely observed in an analysis of the South Carolina Senate race, getting to 50 percent for southern Democrats is a lot harder than getting to 45 percent:
We in the political media (myself included) talk and write a lot about demographic groups, particularly the education divide: white voters without a college degree increasingly lean Republican and white voters with college degrees lean Democratic. But those two blocs vote much differently depending on the state and region. Both groups are more Republican-leaning in the South than in other regions. That conservatism probably has something to do with religion (white voters in Southern states are more likely to be evangelical Protestants) and race (white voters in Southern states are more likely to express more negative attitudes towards people of color).
White voters in the South also tend to be consistently Republican. That is, they don’t really swing between the two parties as they do in a state like Iowa, where Biden could do 6 to 9 percentage points better than Hillary Clinton did four years ago. At FiveThirtyEight, we call this phenomenon “elasticity” — basically, how many voters in a state are persuadable vs. always vote for one party or the other. And South Carolina is one of the most inelastic states.
That’s true of southern-bred white voters across the region, or at least those whose politics are unleavened by the influence of academic centers, tech companies, or Yankee-transplant friends and neighbors. And there are pockets of the South where the math just doesn’t add up for Democrats, either because there aren’t enough minority voters to serve as a party base (Tennessee) or because of conservative economic and cultural patterns that have inhibited the growth of a progressive white voting bloc (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi).
Still, you have to guess, as Jimmy Carter turned 96 this month, that he probably feels more comfortable with his region’s politics than at any time since at least the 1990s. The impossible task he performed of uniting the South around a Democratic candidacy despite vast differences of opinion on just about everything was a onetime proposition. It was born of a regional inferiority complex and the impressive, if forgotten, political skills of a man mostly admired for his post-political, postpresidential accomplishments in diplomacy and philanthropy. But the future southern Democratic Party is now being built on the more solid ground of policies and values that unite an increasingly diverse population with their counterparts in other parts of the country — led by politicians who are no longer whistling Dixie.