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Cross-posted from Facing South -- the former blog, now NEW online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies. Check it out!

On the day before Election Day -- that final moment when candidates decide where they want to make their last case to the voters they want to win the most  -- Barack Obama chose to visit three big battleground states: Florida, North Carolina and Virginia.

Since 1968, these Southern states had voted Democratic for president only six times between them. And president-elect Obama was about to ask voters in these states -- all members of the old Confederacy -- to vote the first African-American ever into the White House.

Obama's Southern Strategy worked: the states went blue, and history was made.

But just as Southern Democrats were clinking glasses of sweet tea in celebration, the powerhouses of political punditry -- especially in the North -- made a bizarre move: They turned against the region that had just given one-third of its Electoral College votes to the President-elect.

Ignoring McCain's dominance in, say, the Great Plains and Upper Mountain states -- Obama's most crushing defeats came in Idaho, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming -- legions of commentators instead curiously trained their guns on the South, dismissing the region as politically irrelevant, a
bastion of red-state conservatism uniquely out of touch with national trends.

Gawker, a popular New York-based website, put a finer point on it: "North Finally Wins Civil War."


It's a familiar refrain. The Obama campaign heard it when they first began talking about changing the political map, including putting several Southern states in play. Leading the pack, as always, was the relentless Tom Schaller, the oft-quoted political scientist whose passion for downplaying the South's political significance has frequently put him on the wrong side of history.

Just this past July, Schaller declared with typical bombast in a New York Times column that "Mr. Obama can write off Georgia and North Carolina." That certainly would come as a surprise to Obama, who won N.C. and made McCain fight for the Peach State.

It would also be news to McCain and Sarah Palin, who scheduled seven campaign stops in North Carolina in the final month leading into the election. As for Georgia, McCain is now headed there to help fellow Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, forced into a run-off largely because of the surge of Obama voters.

This wasn't the first time Schaller's "forget the South" thesis was proven wrong. In 2006,  Schaller famously declared he was "certain"
now-Senator Jim Webb (D) would lose in Virginia
. But the string of bad calls and Obama's success in the South hasn't silenced Schaller and the rest of the "write
off the South" crowd -- oddly enough, it seems to have emboldened them.


In fact, the 2008 elections provided two important lessons about the South, clear to any willing to see them: First, the South is rapidly changing in a way that makes it a more -- not less -- politically competitive region.

And second, despite the fevered hopes of certain wings of the Northern intelligentsia, the South's political clout is rapidly growing -- making the South a centerpiece of any strategy for national political power.

How is the South changing? The 2008 elections offered a glimpse of several major trends and realignments that are shaking up the South:

The Urban South: The South's voters are increasingly based in rapidly growing urban areas. Seven of the country's 10 fastest growing cities are in the South. Metro areas like Atlanta, Northern Virginia, and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. are becoming centers of political power -- which, as 2008 showed, increasingly favor Democrats.

Those infamous "red/blue" maps which show vast stretches of the country dominated by a single color conceal a political truth: 50% of the nation's voters in 2008 came from just 237 counties with a density of 500 people per square mile or more. Eighty-four of those counties -- 35% of the national total -- were in Southern states. Out of those 84 Southern high-density counties, 58% went for Obama.

Overall, in 13 Southern states Obama won over half of voters who identified as "urban" in exit polls; in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia, he won over 60%. Even more striking, out of the 111 urban areas nationally that flipped from Republican to Democrat in 2008, 32 were in the South.

A New Generation of White Voters: Much pundit vexing about the South focused on white voters: A frequently circulated New York Times map showed counties that voted more GOP in 2008 than in 2004, and was dominated by majority-white counties in Appalachia and the lower Great Plains.

This was hardly a surprise: As Timothy Noah pointed out in Slate, whites nationally haven't voted for a Democrat in 40 years (see this chart).

The percent of Southern whites who supported Obama was a bit lower -- about one-third, compared to 43% nationally. But perhaps the more interesting story is that in three Southern states -- North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina -- Obama gained with white voters at a rate higher than the national average.

That was in part due to another ignored story: a dramatic shift among young Southern white voters. In six Southern states, 40% of whites under the age of 30
voted for Obama
. In North Carolina, Obama's level of young white support was 56% -- one of the highest in the nation.

The Multi-Racial South: But the focus on white voters is, of course, deceptive -- and has more than a tint of racism, given the long history of people equating "Southern" with "white."

This election year also showed the growing political power of African-Americans, Latinos and other voters of color. As the AP reported, Obama was helped greatly by a 20% rise nationally in turnout among minority voters.

This was definitely the case in the South. Half of the nation's African-American population lives in the South, and the surge in black voters not only boosted Obama but changed dozens of down-ticket Southern races. In Georgia, Democratic challenger Jim Martin forced a run-off for the U.S. Senate despite only winning 30% of the white vote.

In fact, African-American voters are the biggest reason why this map from The New York Times -- which includes counties which voted more Democratic -- looks like it does, with a strong band of blue running through the South.

This election also offered a glimpse of another emerging reality: the South's multi-racial political future, including a rapidly-growing number of "majority-minority" counties.

The South has the fastest-growing Latino population in the country, which combined with a large African-American population has given rise to hundreds of counties that will have a non-white political majority within a generation.

The electoral clout of these majority-minority counties will only grow over the next generation. But you can already see its influence today: For example, George Campbell of USA Today offered this portrait of Gwinnett County, GA -- a once-solid GOP white Atlanta suburb that is giving way to multi-racial political power:

Wedged between Atlanta's close-in suburbs in DeKalb County, where the minority turned into the majority in the 1990s, and the leafy, sprawling enclaves of mini-mansions and estates to the north, Gwinnett County is one of the most diverse, polyglot jurisdictions in the country. More than 100 languages are spoken in county schools. A majority of students are minorities.

But just 18 years ago, in the 1990 Census, Gwinnett was 90% white, rock-ribbed Republican and Exhibit A in the pantheon of suburban Sun Belt counties that supposedly would mold and sustain realignment to a
permanent Republican majority.

Today, it is on the verge of becoming majority-minority, with Latinos, African Americans and Asians in near equal proportions, and the GOP vote is shriveling. Twenty years ago, George H.W. Bush got 75% of the presidential vote. Four years ago, George W. Bush got 66%. On Nov. 4, John McCain drew just 55%.

This multi-racial shift is at different stages in different parts of the South, but there's no question about the overall trend -- a key reason why Democrats should be encouraged about their prospects in the region.


The media's zeal to write off the South now is odd not only because it comes at a time when Southern states are so rapidly changing. It also comes at a moment when the South's political clout is dramatically growing.

You wouldn't know this from reading a piece like Adam Nossiter's Nov. 11 story in The New York Times titled "For the South, a Waning Hold on National Politics." Nossiter's confused and contradictory piece -- filed from a small town in Alabama -- makes several sleights of hand to make its case, and ultimately falls apart upon serious scrutiny.

Nossiter commits two of the cardinal sins in political analysis of the South. First, he moves the goal posts, changing the definition of "the South" to suit his purposes. For example, in paragraph two we learn that, in Nossiter's estimation, "voters from Texas to South Carolina and Kentucky may have marginalized their region for some time to come."

Here Nossiter is channeling Republican Sen. John Warner, who famously dismissed Obama's lead in Southern states by saying that "Florida, North Carolina and Virginia aren't really part of the South."

How soon the pundits forget: Just years ago, these states were electing Senators like Jesse Helms and George "Macaca" Allen, and being held up as evidence of the GOP's "Southern dominance" -- the very reason people like Schaller wrote them off in the first place.

Yet once these Southern states -- which also happen to be among the biggest in the region -- vote Democratic, poof! They're no longer part of the South. Such circular reasoning is just as bad as dismissing the over 19 million voters in 13 Southern states who cast votes for Obama.

But to admit Obama's strong showing in much of the South would also force Nossiter to acknowledge non-white voters in the South. As far as I can tell, Nossiter fails to quote a single non-white expert or person-on-the-street in his piece. But he is more than willing to write paragraphs like this, which perpetuate a frankly racist notion that Southerners are by definition white:

Less than a third of Southern whites voted for Mr. Obama, compared with 43 percent of whites nationally. By leaving the mainstream so decisively, the Deep South and Appalachia will no longer be able to dictate that winning Democrats have Southern accents or adhere to conservative policies on issues like welfare and tax policy, experts say.

Note the casual conflation of "the Deep South and Appalachia" with "Southern whites" -- especially bizarre given that the Deep South also includes the Black Belt. Of is the "accent" of a black man in Alabama whose family goes back 300 years not "Southern" enough for Nossiter?

Indeed, Nossiter's piece is littered with quotes from a predictable cast of small-town Republican white characters: The inevitable white woman who "fears" aggressive black men, the white trucker who doesn't like Muslims. For special impact, he ends with one Gail McDaniel, a cosmetologist Nossiter corners at the Shop and Save, who's concerned about "abortion and same-sex marriage" -- and as we all know, same-sex marriage is only a big issue in the South.

Apparently, Nossiter couldn't find any African-American voters in Alabama, a state with the 7th-highest black population in the country (26%) and scene of one of the most memorable events of the civil rights movement. Or any other non-white voters, for that matter, in a state where 22 counties are "majority minority" [pdf] -- and many more counties where the under-20 population is majority non-white, a sign of the state's political future.

Come to think of it, even white Democrats -- 47% of whom in Alabama pulled the lever for Obama -- seem to escape the trepid New York reporter.


But Nossiter also misses the biggest political reality of all: that the South's political clout isn't waning, but significantly increasing.

The South growing is faster than almost anywhere in the country: Two-thirds of the nation's fastest-growing counties are in the South. This not only means that the South is obviously "relevant" to a growing number of people, because they live there. It also means that the South's political influence in Congressional seats and choosing presidents is poised to expand, as the AP reported earlier this year:

Fast-growing Southern states could gain nine new congressional seats after the 2010 census, largely at the expense of their neighbors to the north, judging from the latest government data.

Georgia and North Carolina' delegations in the U.S. House would overtake New Jersey's, for example, while Florida would catch up with New York, according to projections based on a July 2007 population snapshot released by the Census Bureau last month. Texas would be the biggest gainer ...

Does that sound like a "waning" region to you?

Barack Obama's victories in the South -- and his ability to mobilize voters in record numbers across the region -- proved the "write off the South" mentality is remarkably out of touch with today's highly dynamic and competitive region.

And the South's rapidly growing size and political might also show that dismissing the South is a recipe for long-term political suicide -- at least for any party that has national political aspirations.

Democrats across the country can only hope their party's leaders take a page from Obama, and when looking at the South, they ignore the Nossiters and Schallers and instead say, "Yes, We Can."

Originally posted to ProgressiveSouth on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:05 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  We need to set the record straight (30+ / 0-)

    Hope you enjoy this -- and rec it, too!

    2008 should have put an end to the "write off the South" movement ... but it seems that they're as loud as ever.

    Blogging for a Progressive South //

    by ProgressiveSouth on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:07:07 AM PST

    •  Outstanding! (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      timewarp, Terra Mystica, Larsstephens

      We'll win here in Georgia before we even come close in OK, UT, ID, WY. And we've got more House Seats and EVs than all those others combined.

      Texas, too, is a changing place, and while partly-South, partly-West, partly-a-planet-unto-itself, it's another example of where our party can and should be investing for the long-term.

      The next time you'll hear the media talking about "an Electoral lock," they are likely to be talking about us!

      America, you have earned a new puppy.

      by pat208 on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:26:35 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Excellent perspective piece Progressive (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Your contrast of the knee-jerk response, based on an outmoded model, and the truth is one of which savvy politicos will take note.

    •  thanks for writing this (0+ / 0-)

      The "write off the south" movement isn't about logic or facts, it's about this:

      ...Southern whites ... will no longer be able to dictate that winning Democrats have Southern accents

      Bigotry against white southerners, pure and simple. Such people won't be convinced by your post, but the rest of us now know better why they are wrong.

      You also make an excellent case for why Obama should come to Georgia now and campaign for Jim Martin. He campaigned in North Carolina and won. And there's this:

      A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found that 75 percent of Americans think Obama will be a good, even great president, far more than the 53 percent who voted for him. Those citizens may be responding in part to Obama's election-night victory speech quoting Abraham Lincoln: "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break the bonds of our affection."

      Yes, Obama lost Georgia, but not by much, and now he's much more popular than he was a few weeks ago when he won.  All that plus it's the base he did win that would be the most energized by Obama appearing in Georgia.

      "Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all." --Hypatia of Alexandria, c.400

      by jayskew on Sun Nov 23, 2008 at 12:03:28 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Valid point. (7+ / 0-)

    I would tend to attribute this strange reaction to hastiness and failure of analysis, but it could as well be interpreted as racism. That the South voted for Obama in 2008 is indicative of the extent to which today's South is urban and black instead of rural and white (an image leftover from, I imagine, the childhood years of most paid political analysts).

  •  Good and fascinating diary. (4+ / 0-)

    You illuminate a point in time in which we can see conventional wisdom being manufactured by media opinion makers, with their trademark shoddy materials and slipshod workmanship. And what you argue about the rising political clout of the south in future is well supported, and will prove something to reckon with.

    Culturally, Oklahoma seems to partake of the West and South at the same time. More Southern even than Texas, perhaps, where I lived for 17. You think?

    Wars based on principle are far more destructive...the attacker will not destroy that which he is after. ~Alan Watts

    by revbludge on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:16:42 AM PST

  •  I just wrote about the southern auto industry (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    sorry to shill, but it's connected:

    Justice, mercy, tolerance, hope, love, grace, and redemption are all Judeo-Christian values.

    by Benintn on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:20:35 AM PST

    •  Definitely -- Southern auto is booming (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      timewarp, Larsstephens

      Alabama is poised to overtake Detroit as the center of U.S. auto manufacturing in 2009, bailout or no.

      It's also a key element that could fuel the growth of the South's economic and political clout.

      Blogging for a Progressive South //

      by ProgressiveSouth on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:25:36 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  That's the nice... (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Silverbird, Larsstephens

        ...thing about low wage economy.  There is relatively little high level education (let's see, we have Vanderbilt, Duke, and Emory and...that's pretty much it) in the South, and jobs go there primarily because wages are depressed compared to the rest of the country.  Alabama's automotive industry is booming primarily as a direct result of the depressed wages.  

        "An army of principles can penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot." - Thomas Paine

        by Mister Gloom on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:35:30 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Low wages, and ... (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Silverbird, Larsstephens

          an entire infrastructure catering to business. Southern states like Alabama PAY foreign auto makers big bucks to move to the state. They also offer free job training, a promise of keeping the shop union-free, lax environmental regulations, etc.

          It's a definite boost to the state's economy, but the sacrifices are many.

          Blogging for a Progressive South //

          by ProgressiveSouth on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:38:49 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Good post... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I think what they want to say is Appalachia, which is the only region where McCain outperformed Bush '04.  That stretch of country very obviously goes out of the south into PA.  On the results by county map, there is a string of counties that went blue that looks like it follows I-20 to Birmingham, and then US-278 to Memphis.  I don't know if this is the "black belt" you refer to, but it obviously swings around the south end of the Appalacians.  

    It's so much tidier to just call it "the South, it's probably a sign of journalistic laziness.  You're right about Oklahoma, Wyoming and those states.  I've been looking for a name for that column of red states.  Prarie West?

    Congratulations President-Elect Barack Obama!

    by gooners on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:24:40 AM PST

  •  Good diary... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ...the left's new talking point about Republicans being resigned to a "regional party" always omits  the Mecca of red states,  Alaska.

    Alaska shat the despicable wingnut Sarah Palin upon us, yet Sarah's state is never included in the "regional party" frame for some reason.

    Certainly Republicans now enjoy a political grip on the South, but no state in the South is as red as Utah or  Sarah Palin's "too-close-to-call-for-Stevens"  Alaska.

  •  Very good read. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pat208, Terra Mystica, Larsstephens

    I spent all my phone banking hours after October 6 calling North Carolina, because I have two daughters who live in the state and just felt in my gut it could go blue.  My heart swelled with pride when it did. I am so grateful that the Obama team gave us the vision, the tools, and the hope to know our votes did matter in the south.

    Lazy journalism needs to be corrected.  You should send this link to every news source you can find.

    Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

    by FightForJustice on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:27:48 AM PST

  •  Actually... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ...Wasn't the south*west* the fastest growing portion of the country.  With areas like Arizona, Texas, Nevada, and the like showing the quickest growth?  

    "An army of principles can penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot." - Thomas Paine

    by Mister Gloom on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:28:58 AM PST

    •  The last U.S. Census (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pat208, Larsstephens

      statement on this issue (see link in story) had half of the fastest growing states in the South, and half in Southwest. So you could call it a tie.

      As we point out, 2/3 of the most quickly growing counties are in the South.

      From what I've seen, Southern states are also poised to gain more Congressional/Electoral College seats, which was the main thrust of the argument above.

      Blogging for a Progressive South //

      by ProgressiveSouth on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:34:51 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  AL may be changing due to the auto jobs (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    and european influence that comes with them.

    "You may already be a wiener!" Anonymous

    by Terra Mystica on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:37:18 AM PST

    •  That will be something to watch (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pat208, Larsstephens

      In South Carolina, one of the biggest reasons the state moved to lower the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds is because the business community said it was bad for luring companies and jobs to the state.

      Rumor has it that one German auto exec called South Carolina "the cracker capitol of the world," which caused all manner of bad feelings.

      Blogging for a Progressive South //

      by ProgressiveSouth on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:41:07 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  A bit misleading (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    You make some good points, but I have to take up your point that the South delivered 1/3 of its electoral votes to Obama.  That is true only when you include Virginia.  Virginia would not have been won by Obama without Northern Virginia, which is culturally a northern area.

    •  Well ... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pat208, Larsstephens

      You could also say Obama wouldn't have won Virginia if it hadn't been for support in Richmond, Virginia Beach area, Roanoke and other Black Belt counties.

      Sure, urban VA played a large role, and like other urban areas in the South, it looks less "Southern" than our old stereotypes.

      But I think there are many who would say much of VA is still very Southern.

      Blogging for a Progressive South //

      by ProgressiveSouth on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 11:50:08 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  media is lazy. You are not. You did the (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FightForJustice, Larsstephens

    work to gather actual data and analyze it.  Kudos to you.  The media just wants to repeat the talking points of others and distort them sometimes. That is all they want to do.

  •  Interesting analysis (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    And a good argument for the most part.  But while reading it I'm having one recurring observation.  That is that "the South" is an increasingly useless term when speaking of political strategy.  For example, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida now have very little in common with Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi.  For political purposes it may be necessary to abandon the Civil War era boundaries that have become so ingrained in our thinking.  We don't think of other regions this rigidly.  Would anyone lump Idaho and Washington together politically just because they're in the Northwest?  It will probably make more sense in the future to think of the area from Virginia to Florida as a coastal region that is distinct from the gulf and inland southeastern states.

    Also, one question:  Does the 43% figure of white voters "nationally" include southern states?  If so, it's an apples to oranges comparison.  If 1/3 of southern whites voted for Obama, and you want to find out how that compares to whites in the rest of the nation, you need to exclude the south from that second group.

  •  As a real Texan instead of a W 'Texan', (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pat208, Larsstephens

    I see this as the media intervening to the detriment of the best interests of the people and the truth. That's not a big surprise to me.

    Since the defense contractors bought out the Big Three networks (no, not the carmakers -- the newsmakers and broadcasters) there's been a concerted effort to drown the voices of the left, the progressives, the non-rich.

    That effort continues in the marginalization of the South, readily targeted for "misbehavior" by the "victorious" North.
    Big money -- industrial money and financial money, instead of agricultural money -- has always been a denizen of the North.
    Big money has always wanted -- and over the history of this experiment in democracy, at least, usually gotten -- control of the "message."

    The "message" since Booth shot Lincoln has been that the South is degenerate and unrelenting. The "message" since Lincoln died has been that the North is virtuous and inerrant.

    Nothing could be further from the truth, but that is the prevailing spin the Media sell.

    For a little while in the late 1960s and early 1970s there might have been some shift in that tide; Jimmy Carter was, after all, genuinely Southern (and NEITHER of the Bushes was). He spoke to us as a nation -- even in peacetime -- of the need to be sparing and nurturing, to practice good stewardship and be willing to offer our neighbors a hand up, not just a hand out, while working for our own betterment with a tirelessness no longer demanded of us once Reagan, President of the Power-Nap, ascended.

    Bill Clinton (PBUH) was not a Southern president so much as he was a Mid-South / Border President -- a man brought up in Arkansas, which is a Midwestern more than a Southern state, particularly once you're 50 miles west or north of Texarkana.

    It'll be interesting to me to see if one of the post-partisan benefits of an Obama presidency is, indeed, finally an end to marginalization, even criminalization, of thirteen states of the Union because they lack three things:
    a Wall Street district, a population of multimillionaires on the order of Trump, and a media hub like those of NYC/LA.

    John Edwards:"One America does the work, another America reaps the rewards. One America pays the taxes, another America gets the tax breaks."

    by BlackSheep1 on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 01:29:38 PM PST

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