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Did Obama Make the South Irrelevant?


The polls had hardly closed, it seemed, before the punditry of print and blogosphere were positively a-twitter at the possibility that Barack Obama’s near-landslide victory is both substance and symbol of the happy reality that “The South has moved from being the center of the political universe to being an outside player in presidential politics.

I can see why Obama’s big win might seem like a metaphoric triumph over the South that, at the time of his birth, would have afforded him little prospect of having the opportunity to vote for a presidential candidate, much less of becoming one. By the same time-warped logic, of course, Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976 could have been construed as the final proof that hookworm had been eradicated. Prior to 2000, by the way, the 1976 election was the last in which either party owed its success to a single southern vote, so anyone who situates the South at “the center of the political universe” in presidential races is putting a hell of a lot of weight on just two trips to the polls.

Although I have trouble resisting the notion that such facile generalizations reflect a desire to pin the entire nation’s shift to the right over the last two generations on the South, there’s no denying that a majority of white southerners have not voted for a Democrat since 1960. Even with an expected increase in black turnout, it was hard to imagine that Obama could overcome the heightened white resistance that a black Democratic candidate was sure to arouse down South. This scenario clearly played out in states like Alabama, where Obama managed only 10 percent of the white vote as opposed to the 19 percent given to John Kerry in 2004. In Mississippi, Obama claimed only 11 percent of white voters, compared to 14 percent for Kerry, and in Louisiana, Kerry’s 24 percent showing among whites fell to 14 percent with Obama.

Across the region, however, Obama not only equaled or surpassed Kerry’s share of the white vote in nine of thirteen states, but utilizing hordes of volunteers and drawing on a huge campaign war chest, he was able to break the GOP’s grip on Dixie by actually winning Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina. Obama won in these states primarily by getting a substantially greater percentage of white votes in North Carolina and Virginia and matching Kerry’s share of the white vote in Florida, while running five to ten points ahead of Kerry with black voters as well. Excluding Oklahoma, where no poll data was available, Obama averaged over 95 percent of the black vote across the old Confederacy, and within states, he typically ran strongest in places with large black populations and in fast-growing areas like North Carolina’s Research Triangle that had attracted large numbers of more affluent, better-educated residents, most of them white.

Obama’s returns also reflected the growing suburbanization of the South’s black middle class. He carried three metropolitan Atlanta counties—Douglas, Newton, and Rockdale—that, despite giving 60 percent or more of their votes to George W. Bush in 2004, had seen their black population percentages more than double since 2000. Blacks represented over one-third of the population in each of these counties by 2008, and although McCain carried four other metropolitan counties with smaller but fast-growing black populations (including notoriously conservative Cobb), his share of the vote nonetheless fell short of Bush’s by from seven to twelve points. The limits of the Democrats’ metro surge in Georgia were sharply defined by race and geography, however. In adjoining counties like Walton, Forsyth, and Cherokee, which were both whiter and farther out from Atlanta, McCain claimed better than three of every four votes cast.

By bringing out record numbers of black voters, the Obama campaign boosted the fortunes of a number of white Democratic candidates elsewhere on the ticket. In Georgia, despite capturing less than 30 percent of the white vote, Democratic senatorial challenger Jim Martin was able to force a runoff with GOP incumbent Saxby Chambliss because blacks gave him 93 percent of their support. In North Carolina, meanwhile, neither Democratic senatorial candidate Kay Hagan nor her gubernatorial counterpart Beverly Perdue won as much as 40 percent of the white vote, but with 96 and 95 percent of the black vote, respectively, both claimed victory on election night.

Hagan’s race was particularly satisfying to Democrats because she ousted GOP incumbent Elizabeth Dole, who, sensing that she was in trouble, had resorted to a last-minute television spot suggesting her staunch Presbyterian opponent was actually in cahoots with an atheist organization and therefore keeping company with the “Godless.” The now widely circulated ad even closed with a voice resembling Hagan’s announcing, “God is dead.” This scurrilous bit of deception seemed to backfire on Dole among metropolitan voters in North Carolina, especially, and liberal commentators gleefully pointed out that after GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” came to Guilford County, in the Greensboro-High Point metro area, and praised it as the “real [read conservative Republican] America,” the county went for Obama by 18 points. (Washington Post, October 17, 2008)

Among rural and small town whites, however, a torrent of rumors, emails, ads, and flyers suggesting that Obama was a Muslim or even the Antichrist seemed to intensify fears and hostilities rooted in his race. Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee accounted for three of the four states where the Republicans actually fared better in 2008 than 2004. Overall, only 22 percent of the counties nationwide voted more strongly Republican in 2008 than in 2004, and according to the Times map, as seen through my tired old eyes, at least, some three-fourths or more of them were in the South. In general, the populations of these predominantly rural counties tended to be whiter, poorer, less educated, and more evangelical than their peers elsewhere in the region. The South could claim practically all the counties where the Republicans gained an additional 10 percent or more of the vote in 2008, and one-third of the residents of these counties were Southern Baptists.

Believe it or not, I’m actually a-thinkin’ that a more conservative GOP choice might have meant even more dark of these red splotches on the South’s electoral cheeks. Skeptical at best of his ideological bona fides, the folks on Johnny Mac’s right flank (to whom he was forced to keep pandering during the campaign when he should have been wooing Independents and undecideds) weren’t exactly his most gung-ho troops. Compared to 2004, GOP turnout was down 1.3 percent across the country this year, and given the anticipated white backlash against the Obama camp’s massive voter registration effort, it surely means something that Republican turnout was essentially flat with 2004 in fast-growing Virginia. Nor should we overlook the 25,000 ballots for Libertarian Bob Barr in North Carolina, where the Obama victory margin was fewer than 14,000 votes.

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Although the counties that were redder this year than in 2004 are home to a decided minority of the region’s people, some analysts seem to have fixated on places like Cleburne County, Alabama (total vote, 6468) and Itawamba County, Mississippi (total vote, 9265) in pouncing on the 2008 election results as evidence of the South’s ongoing marginalization in national politics and arguing that the Democrats should stop wasting their time on the region in presidential elections. In doing so they seem unable or unwilling to see that the South is no longer, and, for that matter never has been, simply Cleburne or Itawamba writ large. Although they were not necessary for an Obama victory this time, the fifty-five electoral votes the Democrats accumulated in winning Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia might well come in handy in future contests. Moreover, in Georgia where McCain’s final five point margin was much slimmer than once anticipated, the Obama campaign’s belated decision to run ads targeting metro Atlanta, with its large population of white newcomers and African Americans, might have indicated recognition of a lost opportunity and foretold a more formidable effort in that state in 2012.

On the other hand, in the short term, at least, it’s obviously difficult to see the Democrats investing major time or resources campaigning in states like Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, or South Carolina where the electoral payoff is relatively puny and too many white voters’ hard-line attitudes not only on race, but religion and other social issues seem unlikely to soften anytime soon. Likewise, much like the Democrats in the era when they could count on essentially this same category of whites to maintain a “Solid South,” so long as their opponents leave these states uncontested in presidential elections, the Republicans have no particular incentive to pay much attention to them either.

Although the hasty proclamation of southern political irrelevance clearly doesn’t apply to all southern states, both the 2006 and 2008 elections have given reason to suspect that the Republican Party’s strong and sustained tack to the right may have unwittingly marginalized the GOP and left it with a shrunken core of support heavily concentrated in the South.

With southerners occupying nearly half of the party’s congressional seats after the 2008 races, political scientist Merle Black suggests the Republicans might have “maxed out on the South” and in the process, ”limited their appeal in the rest of the country.” I’m not fit to carry Merle’s briefcase, but I’m guessing he’d be the first to tell us that the truly substantial evidence needed to evaluate the second half of this proposition won’t be available until about this time in 2012. The real meaning of any election, it seems, is something we can’t even begin to understand until we’ve had the next one.

James Cobb

by James C. Cobb

Mr. Cobb is Spalding Distinguished Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens. He is the author of the book, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (Oxford University Press, Sept. 2005).

Republished with permission from the History News Network

Other articles by James C. Cobb