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No Southern Comfort For Wishful Liberals

Tucked inside the Review section of Sunday’s New York Times was an eye-catching plea from Karen Cox, a University of North Carolina-Charlotte history professor, urging Northern liberals not to be so dismissive of their Southern counterparts. The South may look like a swath of red on the electoral map, Cox wrote, but it is home to several burgeoning Democratic strongholds. In fact, Cox argued, the South is really not all that different in this regard from the rest of the country: it features blue urban outposts surrounded by red rural areas:

Voters in Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans, Birmingham, Ala., and even Jackson, Miss., gave Mr. Obama substantial majorities, not because they are out of step with the rest of the country but because they are part of the same urban-rural divide that drives voting everywhere. So if we’re going to apply the term “Confederacy,” then perhaps we can all agree that while a majority of Southern white voters seem intransigent to change, the region is nevertheless being transformed by its changing demographics.

Virginia, home to the capital of the Confederacy, went for Mr. Obama. Florida, part of the original Confederacy, also went for Mr. Obama. North Carolina, which Mr. Obama carried in 2008, went to Mr. Romney, but by a very slim margin—more attributable to the economy and job losses than to any conspiracy of Confederate dunces.

Many people have labeled my home state of North Carolina a red state, but it’s much more complicated than that. In the very rural mountain county of Avery, for example, Mr. Romney won with a whopping 74.5 percent of the vote, yet in Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, he lost to Mr. Obama by nearly 23 percentage points....Similarly, in Fulton County, Georgia, whose county seat is Atlanta, Mr. Obama bested Mr. Romney with about 64 percent of the vote but lost in the state’s mostly rural counties. If Charlotte or Atlanta were the size of New York City, then perhaps we wouldn’t tag either North Carolina or Georgia as red states.

Even when you break down a clear blue state like New York, you can see this urban-rural dichotomy. In Brooklyn, Mr. Obama carried 81.4 percent of the vote; in the rural county of Hamilton, Mr. Romney won 62.2 percent. The same urban-rural divide can also be found in blue states like California and Washington. In other words, before our liberal allies in blue states point their fingers and scoff, they might want to take a look in their own rural backyards for evidence that their states actually have something in common with the supposedly backward ones in the South.

One cannot help but be sympathetic to Cox’s plea. The condescension of coastal elites toward the country’s red and purple interior is noxious, not least because of the overgeneralizations it produces. One of the reasons I so enjoy the chance to do reporting around the country is to stumble on the pockets of local exceptionalism that completely confound regional stereotypes—for instance, small college towns like Hartsville, S.C., home of Coker College, where I filed a campaign dispatch last winter from a coffee shop that would not have been out of place in Northampton, Mass.

However, when looking at the political map more broadly, one has to reckon with certain realities. And the reality of today’s South, taken as a whole, is that it’s truly a land apart politically from the rest of the country. Put simply, white voters in the South are just way, way more Republican than white voters elsewhere. Nationally, Obama won 39 percent of white voters, according to exit polls. There are no regional breakdowns of that average, but we have data from many of the states, and the contrast is stark as can be. In Mississippi, Obama won 10 percent of the white vote. In Cox’s home state of North Carolina, Obama did better but still well below his national average, winning 31 percent of white voters. In Florida and Virginia, he was just below his national averarge, with 37 and 38 percent, respectively. In contrast, in the nothern swing states of Iowa and Wisconsin, Obama won 51 and 47 percent of white voters, respectively. The regional divide was clearest in a Pew poll taken just days before the election, which had Obama up nationally by three points, the same as his final margin. It showed Obama winning 27 percent of the white vote in the South and 46 percent outside the South—a nearly 20 point difference.

Is the extremity of this divide merely a function of the Democratic ticket being led by Barack Hussein Obama? No. John Kerry did little better in the Deep South in 2004—he won only 19 percent of the white vote in Mississsippi. There has been a bigger redward shift in the Obama era in the upland and Appalachian South, as this remarkable map from 2008 shows—but it's hard to say how much of that was driven by Obama as opposed to being a result of the general shift in that whole swath of the country away from the Democrats, as the upland South catches up with the Deep South in its partisan flip to R.

But what of Cox’s more specific argument that the South is analagous to the rest of the country in its urban-rural political divide—that its Republican tilt is only a result of its urban centers not being as large as those in the rest of the country? Well, this also doesn’t really hold up under closer scrutiny. First there is the fact that rural areas in the rest of the country simply aren’t as red as those in the South, or as Cox makes them out to be. Yes, Romney won more than 60 percent in a few upstate New York counties. But overall, Obama and he split New York’s rural and small-town vote 50-50, a margin little different than the breakdown in the state’s suburban areas, according to exit polls. Likewise, in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, Obama won between 45 percent and 47 percent of the rural and small-town vote. By contrast, in North Carolina Obama won only 39 percent of the rural and small-town vote, and in Florida he won only 35 percent of it.

As for Obama’s relatively strong performance in Southern cities, Cox neglects to mention how much this is a function of the cities’ large black populations rather than, as she implies, a reflection of more progressive-minded white voters. Georgia's Fulton County (Atlanta) is 45 percent African-American; North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) 28 percent. And even with their large black populations, those Southern urban centers were not nearly as Democratic as similarly composed northern cities. Philadelphia has the same proportion of black residents as Fulton County—and went for Obama with 85 percent of the vote, 20 points more than his margin in Fulton.

None of this is to say that the South is a lost cause for Democrats. Obama’s performance in the suburbs of Richmond was even more impressive than his showing in Northern Virginia, given that the Richmond area is less northern-inflected than the Washington area. That Obama has made North Carolina a battleground is a remarkable feat, and there is talk of the Democrats being able to do the same with Georgia sometime in the next decade. (My colleague Nate Cohn explains why Texas, on the other hand, still has a ways to go.) But if Southern Democrats are serious about reclaiming more of their region, they will need to be clear-eyed about what they’re up against. For now, their best bet might be to start small and local with their progressive goals—say, by trying to get Southern governors to take the billions of dollars in federal funding for expanded health coverage that they are now refusing to accept.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis