The Battle for the South

In an article suggesting that Donald Trump’s support is more broad than is usually reported, Scott Bland noted this:

In the Civis’ model, Trump runs ahead of his 33-percent national average in 30 of the 40 districts where Kerry matched or exceeded Obama’s performance, even though Obama ran about 5 points ahead of Kerry nationally.

Those districts are largely contained in a band running through Appalachia, from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, and then across the Deep South to Arkansas and Oklahoma. Once Democratic strongholds, voters there have sloughed off the party in recent decades — a trend that accelerated rapidly under Obama. Now, Trump is giving a voice to some of their protectionist concerns about immigration and trade.

I often find this kind of reporting to be fascinating in that Bland makes no mention of the fact that this area of the country started to “slough off” the Democratic Party right after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Republicans initiated their Southern Strategy. And yet he implies that the acceleration of that change at the election of our first African American president has to do with their “protectionist concerns about immigration and trade.” To the extent these areas voted in greater numbers for John Kerry than they did Barack Obama, does anyone think that is because of protectionism? Why can’t reporters admit that racism is at least part of the mix? If I were into leveling charges of “political correctness,” this is where it actually applies.

There should be no doubt that Trumpmania is at its peak among white people across the old South. But Michael Cooper suggests that in those areas, there is something interesting happening to the Democratic Party.

Progressive politics may work in a Seattle or a New York City, but they’re not supposed to win campaigns south of the Mason-Dixon. Southern states voted as one Democratic bloc for almost a century after the Civil War, until the landmark civil rights measures of the 1960s combined with Richard Nixon’s election strategy to coax “the old Solid South into the Republican South,” says William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Democrats in the South generally responded to this shift by leaning right and picking off conservative voters where they could. Think of centrist politicians like Lloyd Bentsen, Blanche Lincoln, Sam Nunn, or Bill Clinton. But the Blue Dog Democrat has been pushed to the brink of extinction in the era of President Barack Obama, in the South as surely as everywhere else, and a new coalition of unapologetically liberal Democrats like Roberts [Mayor of Charlotte, NC) have taken control of their party. They may be nearly powerless outside urban, cosmopolitan areas in the South, but these Democrats believe the demographics are on their side to build a liberal Southern majority in the future.

Cooper’s analysis relies heavily on the work of demographers Ruy Teixeira and William Frey.

According to “States of Change: The Demographic Evolution of the American Electorate, 1974-2060,” a 2015 report coauthored by Frey and Teixeira, America will go from 80 percent white in 1980 to less than 44 percent in 2060, when Georgia, Virginia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Florida join Texas as majority-minority states. A change will be “fueled by a combination of immigration of Asians and Latinos and the reverse migration of blacks,” says Teixeira.

That “reverse migration” has been happening for decades now, but continues to accelerate. New York, Chicago, and Detroit are experiencing losses in their black population as “children and grandchildren move back to the South,” says Frey, noting a shift to cities like Raleigh, Charlotte, Houston, and Atlanta “that will affect the suburban South in ways we would never have understood 20 years ago.”

The changes the South in experiencing right now with respect to both demographics and reverse migration are part of what is fueling the fear/anger that Donald Trump is tapping onto. We are at the initial stages of watching that dynamic unfold. But as I wrote recently, the candidacy of Trump is likely to accelerate rather than ameliorate the battle for the South. The changes in the Democratic Party that Cooper has identified aren’t creating as much noise as the screaming fear-mongering we’re hearing from the Republican base. But they will be fascinating to watch nonetheless.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.