The GOP's Southern problem

The Republican Party is relying on a specific kind of Southern white person to shore up its power base, but that demographic can't be counted on for long.

Published November 26, 2008 8:55PM (EST)

On Monday, South Carolina GOP chairman Katon Dawson threw his hat in the ring for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. Leaving aside the question of his qualifications, Dawson embodies -- geographically, demographically and metaphorically -- the box in which his party now finds itself.

I'm not just talking about the fact that Dawson is a white Southerner. Certainly the GOP needs to rebuild its strength in other regions of the country, and would be better served looking to the North or the West. Nor am I simply saying Dawson should be disqualified over the little matter of his country club. Though, yes, perhaps in 2008, the year in which America elected a black man president, any party that wishes to burnish its image with the booming non-white sector of the national electorate should think twice before selecting as its head a man who belonged to a segregated institution as recently as September. For 12 years, Dawson was a member of the Forest Lake Club, which apparently has an exclusionary admissions policy, quitting only two months ago as he prepared for his RNC bid.

What I'm saying is that Katon Dawson is an absolute poster child for the Republican Party's long-term demographic ills. He exemplifies two trends in white Southern Republicanism that correspond precisely with a shrinking national political power base.

On Nov. 4 Obama won 55 of the 152 electoral votes of the 11 states of the old Confederacy. While he was winning in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, John McCain was outperforming George Bush throughout the region as a whole. The Republican vote in the South in 2008 actually increased over 2004. But the GOP did this by relying on two demographics that can no longer be counted on to deliver the once-solid South.

Specifically, McCain did well with two kinds of Southern whites: those who live in states with large numbers of black people, like South Carolina, and those who are native-born, like Katon Dawson. Those two trends explain why Republicans should have high hopes about retaining the electoral votes of Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina, at least for the near future, but may struggle to get back those crucial 55 electoral votes in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.

The link between white Republicanism and a high black population has already been noted, here and elsewhere. The 2008 election was true to form. Salon ran the numbers for the 11 states of the old Confederacy, Alabama through Virginia. The statistical correlation for blacks as a percentage of population and tendency of whites to vote for Obama, meaning the mathematical proof that as one goes up, the other goes down, was negative .717. The strongest possible correlation would've been negative 1, but a correlation of negative .717 is considered very strong. This election was further proof that the blacker a Southern state, the more Republican its whites.

Less has been said about what may be an even better predictor of Republicanism, a white Southern voter's origins. Those white voters with roots in the South seem to be more Republican than those white voters who moved in from out of state. The correlation for native-born percentage of the white population and an Obama vote was a striking negative .758.

What emerges is a simple explanation for why only 14 percent of whites in Louisiana, 11 percent of whites in Mississippi, and 10 percent of whites in Alabama, according to exit polls, voted for Obama. Those shockingly low figures are, by far, the lowest percentages in the United States, where the overall figure for white support of Obama was around 43 percent. No other states come close. All three of those states have high black populations and relatively little white in-migration. The black population in those three states is 26 percent and above, topping out at Mississippi's 37, the highest percentage in the nation. The percentage of native-born whites in each state, per the U.S. Census, is 66 percent and above.

Southern states that don't have as many white people from outside -- where the whites are still a homogenous religio-ethnic cohort -- tend to behave as they did a half-century ago, albeit with the labels switched. The white population still votes en bloc like their parents and grandparents, except now instead of Bourbon Democrats, they're Republicans. Perhaps "real" white Southerners see themselves, on some level, as engaged in a power struggle with the region's other major ethnic group, African-Americans. (If not, then I must have misunderstood Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss when he made that ominous reference to "the other folks.")

Katon Dawson's home state of South Carolina occupies, with Georgia, a second tier of white Southern Republicanism. Both states have substantial in-migration of whites, but they also have black populations of about 30 percent. Georgia's whites were the fourth most Republican in the nation, at 23 percent support for Obama, while South Carolina's white support for Obama was 26. The results also show the long-term peril, in heavily black states, in relying on monolithic tribal solidarity among whites for a Republican victory. McCain won Georgia by only 5 points. The margin for error is not infinite, and any major demographic shift -- like, say, the sudden appearance of a major Latino population -- could rewrite the rules.

The three Southern states that voted for Obama this election, meanwhile, differ significantly from the eight that voted for McCain. In Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, the native-born white population ranged from 30 to 59 percent, and the black population from 16 to 22 percent, with Florida taking the lowest number each time and North Carolina the highest. In those states, the white vote for Obama approached the national average of 43 percent: 35 in North Carolina, 39 in Virginia, 42 in Florida.

While the white population in Virginia and North Carolina is not dominated by transplants like the population of Florida, both states have been resettled, in recent years, by the types of white people most likely to vote for Obama. The knowledge industries in Northern Virginia and North Carolina's Research Triangle, the proximity to the Northeast, and the high quality of both states' public university systems have pulled in large numbers of young, affluent, well-educated whites who prefer a Democrat like Obama to the Republican Party of Bush, McCain and Palin. States with lower numbers of white migrants -- Mississippi, Louisiana -- lack the kinds of industries and institutions that would attract these educated, affluent migrants. They also haven't grown (and added electoral votes) the way Virginia and North Carolina have. The GOP's continued hold on some of those states seems to hinge on stasis, on delaying the kind of progress most states want.

What does it all mean? It doesn't mean that white transplants are necessarily Democrats or that white natives are Republicans. Forty years ago, in-migration of whites helped build the hitherto nonexistent Republican Party in the South. In my Virginia subdivision, far south of the Beltway, the Republicans I knew were likely to be new arrivals from places like Pennsylvania and Ohio. Not so long ago, and I know because I counted, the white Southern Democrats in the U.S. House were more likely to be natives of the region than were the white Southern Republicans. (See Newt Gingrich of Pennsylvania, Bob Barr of Iowa, Dick Armey of North Dakota, and so on.) The most prominent white Southern liberal Democrats, like Terry Sanford, Jimmy Carter and the now-forgotten hero of my youth Henry Howell, were natives. And people like Brad Miller and John Edwards still walk the earth.

But the numbers do tell a story, even if the anecdotes beg for an exception. As Chris Kromm and Bob Moser would hope, the numbers mean that, on the presidential level at least, the solid Republican South may be mortally wounded. The bluing of Virginia and North Carolina shows no signs of abating, and may be spreading to places like Nashville, Tennessee and the Atlanta suburbs. It's just that this transformation is due to demographic change, both among white and non-white sectors of the population, not to any change of heart among white Southerners themselves. For the most part, they're still a lot like Katon Dawson.

By Mark Schone

Mark Schone is Salon's executive news editor.

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