Regional Identity Politics

As noted here yesterday, FiveThirtyEight did an audience survey from which they gleaned the perceptions of people who identify strongly with being “midwestern” or “southern” and then used the results to indicate a consensus view of which states represent the “Midwest” and the “South.”

The “Midwest” results are a bit more compact than I would have expected, with a band of states including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, and Wisconsin clearly being included, with Michigan and Nebraska following close behind. It’s a bit surprising the Dakotas seem to be “midwestern” to only about a third of respondents, but maybe that’s because they don’t have Big Ten football there, and/or because some people distinguish the “Midwest” from the “Plains.”

Is there any political significance to this definition? Yes, but probably only to the extent there is a long tradition of treating the Midwest as a political cockpit (or, in less rigorous writing, as some sort of quintessentially American “heartland”). There are rather large differences between Ohio and Kansas, and the latter hasn’t really been a politically competitive state in non-landslide presidential elections since the 1890s.

The “South” is traditionally a touchier definition, both to critical outsiders and self-conscious insiders. The 538 survey unsurprisingly shows majority (or very near-majority) acceptance as “southern” of all eleven of the former Confederate states–plus Kentucky. Defying my own personal definition of the South as states “where people used to own people,” Delaware and Maryland aren’t considered “southern” at all, and Missouri has the distinction of being largely rejected for regional membership by both midwesterners and southerners.

More interestingly, Virginia, with its intensely Confederate history, is perceived as significantly less “southern” than Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Even South Carolina, the state which dragged the rest of the region into secession and had the largest pre-Civil War slave population, trails the GLAM states in perceptions of being “southern.” Now you can say states with a lot of cosmopolitan areas or famous for attracting transplants have lost some of their “southern” character, but Atlanta’s pretty damn cosmopolitan and there are plenty of transplants both in major southern cities and in retirement communities along the seas and in the mountains. Maybe some respondents simply are making a distinction between Deep South and Border States based on geography, not demography, history or even culture.

In any event, “the South” is a politically potent concept in which precision and context are often rather important. The general hazy historical perception is that “the South” during the Civil Rights Era transitioned from being solidly Democratic to being solidly Republican. Actually, as Sean Trende likes to point out, the Republican share of the regional presidential vote was 48% in 1952, 50% in 1956, 46% in 1960 and 49% in 1964–remarkably stable and competitive, though masking some pretty large subregional swings–even before the enactment of the Voting Rights Act. But after that Act, as late as 1976, Jimmy Carter (a southern Democrat, of course) was carrying the region by ten points. In 2000 and 2004, Republicans did indeed carry (if you credit the 2000 Florida results) every state in the former Confederacy. But then in 2008 Barack Obama muddied the waters again by winning Virginia, Florida and North Carolina and won the first two again in 2012.

I’ve gone through this brief history because an awful lot of rhetorical weight has been placed on the impact of the “Republican South” on the GOP, on the conservative movement, on non-southern voters, and on the general tone and character of U.S. politics–and quite rightly so.

Still, subregional variations in the South should by no means be ignored. Last week the New York Times‘ Nate Cohn created a bit of a sensation with a column suggesting (a bit more indiscriminately in the headline that he would have liked) that “southern whites” had now become nearly as overwhelmingly Republican as African-Americans were Democratic. Careful readers noted that Cohn was actually only describing white voters in a band of counties “from the high plains of West Texas to the Atlantic Coast of Georgia.” 2012 exit polls showed Obama winning 37% of the white vote in VA and 31% in NC. Upon my own inquiry, Nate noted on Twitter that the statewide Democratic share of the southern white vote in 2012 varied as follows: Kentucky 33%, Arkansas 26%, Tennessee 25%, South Carolina 22%, Texas 22%, Georgia 19%, Alabama 17%, Louisiana 12% and Mississippi 11%.

So in 2012, a white voter in Kentucky was three times as likely to vote for Obama as a white voter in Mississippi. I’d say that’s a variation worth noting when making generalizations about “the South”–not by Nate Cohn, who was careful, but by the very many people who are going to mis-characterize his work.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.