The South was once solid for the Democrats, when the GOP suffered from its identification with Lincoln and Democrats controlled all the levels of power during the Jim Crow years. Then, the national party broke with the South over the issue of civil rights, and the GOP began to make inroads. In 1968, Humphrey carried Texas with 41 percent of the vote, but lost the rest of the South, with George Wallace taking Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas and Nixon winning in the border South and Florida. Jimmy Carter appealed to regional pride to put the South back in the Dem’s column in 1976, but lost (narrowly) all but his home state of Georgia in 1980. Bill Clinton again rode regional pride to victories in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky in both 1992 and 1996. He also took Georgia in 1992 and Florida in 1996. Neither Al Gore nor John Kerry won a single southern state in the last two election cycles.
So, why is Barack Obama who has no regional roots pouring resources into the South? Florida and Missouri are perennial bell weather states, but Obama is counting on putting both Virginia and Georgia into play as well.
Virginia has been turning decidedly purple of late. In 2006, The Old Dominion turned out incumbent GOP Senator George Allen after a gaffe-plagued campaign. In 2005, the Commonwealth elected Democrat Tim Kaine to the governorship. He replaced Democrat Mark Warner who is now running for the Senate and is leading in all polls. Still, Virginia has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964.
Obama is banking on voter registration to bring the state into his column. In 1996, Virginia adopted a motor-voter bill, which combined with population growth, especially in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., produced 700,000 new voters by 2000. Still, Bush won handily that year, 52 percent to Gore 44 percent. But, in the past four years an additional 235,976 new voters have been added to the rolls. Even more importantly, in the first seven months of this year, the percentage increase of newly registered voters in heavily Democratic areas is astounding. In more liberal northern Virginia, 4,987 new voters signed up in Alexandria compared to 2,771 new voters in the same 7-month period in 2004, an 80% increase. In heavily black Petersburg, there were 1,089 new voters in 2008 compared to only 339 new voters in 2004, an increase of 221%.
Another important demographic is breaking for Obama. Voters in the Commonwealth of Virginia do not indicate their party affiliation when they register. But, they do give their age. Of the 202,000 people who have registered in Virginia since the start of this year, 64 percent are younger than 35 years old. Young people have been disproportionately breaking for Obama all year, although young people also disproportionately, do not turn out on election day.
The other southern state where Obama is trying to upset the GOP apple cart is Georgia. There, the GOP has a lock on all statewide offices but more than 300,000 new voters have been added to the rolls since January 1. The percentage of African-Americans registered in Georgia inched up from 27 percent of the electorate to 28 percent, not enough to put much of a dent in the 57-41 percentage victory Bush scored over Kerry in 2004. But, former Georgia congressman Bob Barr is running as a libertarian candidate this year, and has polled as high as 4 percent of Georgians and an average of the most recent polls shows McCain winning the state by only 7 percentage points.
It is doubtful Obama will win Georgia, but if he makes McCain expend resources in a state that the GOP thought they could take for granted, it will be a tactical victory. Virginia is turning into a classic swing state, joining Missouri and Florida in that category. The rest of the South remains firmly in GOP hands but the next state for Democrats to target is the one that broke most heavily for George W. Bush: Texas. There, the rate of increase among Latino voters will eventually put that state in play with its whopping 34 electoral votes. The once Solid South is looking more like a patchwork these days.
Michael Sean Winters