If you’re looking at the 2012 electoral map, with its solid swath of red stretching from the Carolinas to Texas, Democrats’ bid for a Southern rebound may sound like a lot of bluster and wishful thinking. But it may not be completely far-fetched. President Obama, after all, won Florida and Virginia twice and North Carolina once. In 2012, he got 44 percent of the vote in South Carolina and Mississippi and 45 percent in Georgia — the best showing by a Democratic nominee in three decades.
Much hype has attended Battleground Texas, a project to flip the Lone Star State by a group of Obama campaign alums. But Obama lost Texas by 16 points. He lost Georgia by just 8 points. (Early in the 2012 campaign, Democratic strategists made some noises about making a play for Georgia. When I asked Obama adviser David Axelrod about it this week, he insisted that was not merely an attempt to fake out the opposition. “We seriously looked at it,” he told me in an email. “It fell slightly outside our parameters for full investment, but was intriguing.”)
The demographics of the South are changing fast. Quite simply, all of the states of the old Confederacy are getting less white, said Chris Kromm, director of the Durham, N.C.-based Institute for Southern Studies, a research center founded by civil-rights-movement veterans. “I don’t think there’s any question there is a lot of potential [for Democrats] there given how rapidly the landscape of the South is changing,” he said, calling it a “highly volatile moment in Southern politics.”
The Southern states have America’s fastest-growing Latino populations. Of 11 states whose Hispanic populations doubled between 2000 and 2011, nine — Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas — were in the South. Black populations are also growing, thanks in part to a new migration of African-Americans back to the South. At current rates of growth, Georgia and Mississippi could be majority-minority states within a decade. South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, won in 2010 by 60,000 votes; demographers estimate there are as many as 100,000 eligible but unregistered African-American voters in the state.
Other forces are changing the region’s culture. Though the South remains more rural than the rest of the country, its cities and suburbs — from the North Carolina Research Triangle to the Atlanta exurbs — are booming thanks to an influx of white-collar professionals. “The urban centers in the South are becoming centers of political power, and that’s what’s going to change politics,” Kromm said.