Some have recently suggested that changing demographics in the South (defined here as the states of the Confederacy) herald an end to Republican dominance in Southern elections. Citing Barack Obama’s 2008 wins in Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina they have argued:
For Southerners, the message was unmistakable: The future has arrived. The Solid South is dead.
Not long after reading that, the U.S. Supreme Court put a southern-sized dent in the Voting Rights Act, which was written and passed to keep mostly southern states and their entrenched political structures under the eye of the federal government.
The idea of a “dead” solid south got me thinking. And the voting rights decision made me convinced.
The South is being driven towards political competitiveness by large-scale demographic changes. But it’s not here yet—and in fact (to borrow an analogy), rumors of the demise of the Old South are greatly exaggerated.
The trends are there. In Florida, the white proportion of the population has dropped from 73.2 percent to 57.5 percent in a little over twenty years. Texas is now a majority-minority state. Mississippi is close to 40 percent black. There are many reasons for this change, but whether it is new Latino immigration or the reversal of the Great Migration that sent millions of African-Americans north, it is undeniable that the changes that are being seen across the country are particularly visible in the South.
If these trends hold up, they may point to a bluer South—at least when it comes to presidential elections.
Black voters gave President Obama 93 percent of their votes. Latino voters were not that far behind in their support for the President, casting 71 president of their ballots for President Obama. These high numbers helped propel the president to victories in Florida and Virginia in 2012, and brought him within 100,000 votes of carrying North Carolina for the second time as well. No Democratic candidate from outside of the South has enjoyed that level of support in the two-party era of Southern politics, and it is natural to ponder whether changing demographics has precipitated that change.
But once you get below the presidential level, things look very different.
The Republicans dominate Southern representation in the House of Representatives by a margin of 98 to 40. When combined with a 17-to-5 Republican advantage in the U.S. Senate, the South has sent nearly three times the number of Republicans as Democrats to represent them in Washington, with Democrats lacking a majority in every Southern Congressional delegation. While some of this is due to the ruthless efficiency with which Republican-controlled state legislatures have used redistricting tactics to diminish the impact of votes from communities of color, it is difficult to make to make the argument that the South is anything but a deep shade of red at the Congressional level.
At the state level, the situation is equally dire. The 11 states of the “Old South” send 1,172 Republicans to state capitals, compared with just 734 Democrats—a 3:2 advantage for the GOP. Democrats do not have a majority in any single chamber in the South. While the Virginia Senate is a 20/20 tie, the Republican Lieutenant Governor casts the deciding vote in the event of tie, giving Republicans effective control of the chamber.
There is much ground to cover before Democrats are competitive in races below the national level. Two impediments to a purple South stand out particularly: the fact that Democratic Party organizations in the South are weak, and that the candidates who sport a “D” next to their name in the South are simply lighter hues of the deep-red Republicans that they face.
A long string of Democratic defeats at the local, state, and national level has left state party organizations fractured and short on funds. The state party in Alabama is facing eviction from its headquarters, thanks in large part to a financial situation that prompted the recent headline, “The Alabama Democratic Party: ‘We’re broke, broke, broke.’” The party has split in two, with the former party chair taking nearly all of the organizing hierarchy with him to form a new Democratic-affiliated organization, the Alabama Democratic Majority. The chaos has escalated to the point the the party had to disavow the party’s primary winner for an Alabama Supreme Court seat.
In Mississippi, the Democratic Party has also fractured. After the Democrats failed to field a candidate for Lieutenant Governor and were drummed out of the majority in both houses of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, some Democratic activists formed the Mississippi Democratic Trust as a supplement to the state Democratic Party. While there have been some signs of success at the local level in Mississippi, it is very clear that state-level Democratic organizations have atrophied from generations of neglect.
The lack of clear ideological demarcation between Southern Democratic candidates and their Republican opponents adds to the woes faced by the state parties. Democratic candidates for statewide office and federal office (and really, any office outside of college towns and large cities) are typically very conservative.
For example, Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree made history in 2011 as the first black major party nominee for Governor of Mississippi. DuPree also, supported Initiative 26, which would have codified fetal personhood in the Mississippi Constitution. Similarly, in Florida, the best chance for a Democratic victory in a gubernatorial election in the South next year likely rests with a former Republican who was once so harsh on law and order issues that he was known as “Chain Gang Charlie.” And how can we forget the numerous Congressional Democrats that ran far, far away from the Affordable Care Act?
It is said that Democratic candidates need to be conservative in order to win Southern votes, but as Bob Moser points out in his book, Blue Dixie, that is not true. Many core Democratic ideas are very popular even in some of the reddest states of the old Confederacy. For example, South Carolinians overwhelmingly support increased spending on education. The same is true for Texans. Residents across the Deep South also support many aspects of Affordable Care Act, including Medicaid expansion, state health exchanges, and public assistance to help low-income families buy health insurance.
The case for a purpling South looks strong as long as we talk about the states that have the most access to party-building and resources: Virginia with its proximity to Washington, North Carolina with its higher education infrastructure and influx of wealth, and Texas with its size and wealth.
But most of the South does not have the advantages that these states enjoy. Democratic Party infrastructure has crumbled from years of neglect, and many of the states that comprise the old Confederacy are too impoverished to rebuild that infrastructure very quickly. And with the focus amongst prominent Democratic-aligned organizations such as Democracy For America being a shift from “Purple to Blue” instead of “Red to Purple,” state-level parties in the Deep South are likely to continue languishing behind their counterparts elsewhere.
Until the Democratic Party in the South (with assistance from a Democratic National Committee that has long neglected party building in the South) begins the long, hard work of building an infrastructure of progressive power, organizing, and messaging, they will continue to find themselves losing to Republicans that are very beatable. And if we want Democratic-leaning communities to turn out in midterm elections, we have to give them a reason to do so by fielding candidates who aren’t just a lighter shade of red.
Demographics may be on the Democrats’ side, but most of the state-level party organizations in the South are a long way away from having the capacity to take advantage of those changes.
*Updated, July 14, 2013: The sentence originally could be read as implying that Republican-to-Democrat ratios were worse at the state legislature level than at the Congressional level. We have updated for clarity.