South Gone Republican Flirts Purple

Photograph by Chuck Burton/AP Photo

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks at a rally at the University of North Carolina in this Nov. 3, 2008 file photo.

The Old South era of segregation, poverty, agrarian and small-town industry long ago yielded to a march of events ranging from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling to the rise of the Research Triangle in North Carolina in the 1960. From 1980 to 2000, the South gained 15 million jobs, outpacing the nation in both population and job growth.

It also evolved from “a solid Democratic South” to a “Republican lock on the South” with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, notes Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Then came some “purple states” in 2008: with President Barack Obama’s election victory in North Carolina and Virginia, two states that hadn’t voted Democratic since the 1970s in North Carolina nd 1960s in Virginia.

“The recession hurt the south a lot,” Guillory notes. “In terms of the politics today, most of the red states, many of the reds states, have unemployment rates lower than the national average.” (The unemployment rate in North Carolina, 9.6 percent, is among the highest.)

Virginia is an exception.

People who have moved into Virginia and North Carolina in the last 10 years are much more likely to vote for Obama, Guillory’s data from Public Policy Polling show. The older, longtime residents are more likely to vote Republican.

“Through the last 20-25 years, much of the education reform movement in this country came from the South,” said Guillory, adding that “those gains are in danger right now.”

More and more Southerners, in order to succeed in a global economy, will require education beyond high school. The population growth has exceeded the growth in jobs in recent years in North Carolina, underscoring that challenge.

The venue for all this data and discussion:  a brunch and panel of political experts and academics at The Charlotte Observer sponsored by the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC Chapel Hill as the Democratic National Convention is preparing to open this week in Charlotte. The stated mission: “Looking at the South today — not the myths,” as journalism dean Susan King put it this morning.

Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center,  counts the South as 17 states. In the South, 18 percent of registered voters are black, 6 percent Hispanic, 69 percent white. Nationally, blacks account for 12 percent of voters, Hispanics 8 percent and whites 73 percent.

The growth of the Hispanic population is a notable political shift, which helps explain why Obama was able to make inroads in the South in 2008.

“This is really a ticking time bomb… for the Republican Party,” Keeter noted.

“This new South is not static,” said Hodding Carter, former publisher of a legendary progressive Mississippi newspaper, the Delta Democrat, who served Jimmy Carter’s administration and teaches now at UNC.  “Because nobody is willing to talk honestly about race, it needs to be said honestly occasionally, it wasn’t a small thing that three Southern states voted for Obama. It was a revolutionary, incredible thing.”

(Those three were North Carolina, Virginia and Florida.)

For the long term, Carter said,“it is still the Republicans’ to lose.”

Religious lines are different in the South. The ranks of white evangelical Protestants in the South, 30 percent of all registered voters,  exceed those of white evangelical Protestants, just 15 percent of all voters, outside the South.  And people unaffiliated with any religion account for 21 percent of all voters outside the South.

The roughly even divide of Republicans and Democrats in the South has held fairly steady since Pew started tracking it in 1994. Among white voters, however, the share identifying with the Republican Party has grown to 60 percent — with 33 percent identifying with the Democrats. “Much of this widening has occurred over the last four years,” Keeter said.

Half of Southern Democrats are white, non-Hispanic, half are black.

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