"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N*gger, n*gger, n*gger.' By 1968 you can't say 'n*gger' — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff ... obviously sitting around saying, 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'n*gger....'"
— Lee Atwater, describing the Southern Strategy
As the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington approached, The Economist published an insightful article on Martin Luther King's legacy, the state of modern black America, and the effects of watershed civil-rights legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Economist piece also included an unsurprising factoid: Southern states' congressional representation has steadily trended Republican.
This pattern began in the early 1960s, and conventional logic dictates that Southern segregationist Democrats flocked to the GOP in response to the decade's wave of civil rights legislation. Indeed, upon signing the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson, himself a Texan, reportedly stated that the Democratic Party had "lost the South for a generation."
It's been well over a generation since President Johnson bemoaned the loss of the South, well over a generation since those 13 former Confederate states became the Republicans' Solid South, with the occasional exception of swing states Florida and Virginia, and it doesn't look like that will change any time soon.
But does it matter?
I was confronted with that question last week, and available evidence supports the notion that for Democrats, the South won't matter in future elections. In fact, it hasn't even factored into their calculus meaningfully for years, particularly after the devastating 2010 midterms.
The historical reasons for this are clear. Of the first act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Economist notes, "The Civil Rights Act of 1964 directly addressed [discrimination by private businesses and local government]. Signed into law by Lyndon Johnson 10 months after the march...it was strongly opposed by Southern members of Congress." Later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 "outlawed poll taxes, literacy tests, and other practices designed to prevent blacks from voting. It gave the Justice Department and federal courts the power to veto proposed changes to voting procedures in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination." (Interestingly, in this summer's pivotal Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, the nation's highest court effectively invalidated two key provisions of that act, a move that elicited both praise and criticism.) The Voting Rights Act precipitated a further exodus of Southern Democrats from the party.
Current data suggests that Democratic candidates can win — and win big — without the South, as evidenced by President Barack Obama's commanding 2008 and convincing 2012 victories. Of course, both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were successful in the South, especially Carter, but they were from Arkansas and Georgia, respectively, and won while Republicans had yet to totally consolidate their control over the South.
Current data on Southern national officeholders' political orientation since the mid-1960s tracks with those states' voting tendencies over approximately the same period. For example, in 2012 the entire former Confederacy, except Florida and Virginia, went for Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Yet President Obama won two consecutive presidential elections in a country that is ostensibly center-right. Changing demographics — more youth, more people of color — largely account for President Obama's successes in 2008 and 2012. The Center for American Progress also argues that those groups showing most support for President Obama will only continue to strengthen, solidifying Democratic allegiances in current hard blue and even some battleground states.
But while Democrats might not necessarily require the South to enjoy future electoral victories, that's not to suggest that the region won't become more competitive. Bob Moser, in his recent American Prospect essay, "The End of the Solid South," argues that increasingly diverse demographics and a nascent progressive ethos will collectively create strong opportunities for turning red states blue. Moser writes: "Over the next two decades, it will become clear to even the most clueless Yankee that the Solid South is long gone. The politics of the region’s five most populous states, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Texas, will be defined by the emerging majority that gave Obama his winning margins." He concludes that, by 2020, "more than two-thirds of the South’s electoral votes could be up for grabs."
Aggressive Democratic outreach in such places as Texas, coupled with favorable demographic trends such as the doubling of millennial voters between 2008 and 2020, may hasten these developments. Liberals are finding new heroes in such public servants as Texas State Senator Wendy Davis and implementing a major effort, Battleground Texas, in the historically conservative state. However, that program will probably not see significant success for some time.
Of course, any potential victories in the South may balance out if Republicans can seize battlegrounds like Ohio, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire. But assuming Republican success in the Rust Belt may be as quixotic as assuming immediate Democratic success in Texas. Public Policy Polling (PPP) shows probable 2016 Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton with commanding leads over every likely Republican nominee in Ohio. Meanwhile, many other states, such as Illinois and Minnesota, are reliable liberal bastions largely because their sizable metro areas, which contain the majority of those states' voters, swing consistently leftward. It's also important to note that the Great Plains and Mountain West tend to vote Republican, but those states' comparatively small populations make them essentially irrelevant for competitive presidential elections.