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Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 by flipping Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but he may not have been able to do so had Hillary Clinton not lost sight of the Upper Midwest because she was focused on flipping the South.
Long considered a bastion of cultural conservatism, changing demographics are slowly putting the South into play for Democrats. In 2020, those demographics may have reached a tipping point which, combined with suburban antipathy toward Trump, may give Democrats an alternative path to the presidency.
“Traditionally, the South was divided between the Deep South and Rim South,” said Charles Bullock, distinguished university professor of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia.
“Politically now, what I argue is that you need to think about it as the growth South versus the stagnant South. It’s in the growth South that Democrats are staging a comeback, wherein the stagnant South, places like Alabama and Arkansas, Republicans are doing great and maybe haven’t reached their peak. In the growth South, Republicans are in control of most offices, but their margins of victory are declining and they’re losing share in state legislatures and congressional delegations.”
Take Virginia, a 24.6% rural state that entered the 2000s as a red state, having voted Republican in presidential elections since 1968. Beneath that topline Republican dominance, however, the governor’s office had flipped between parties, and in 2001, Democrat Mark Warner won the election by winning big in urban areas, holding the margin in rural areas, and carrying the suburban vote — the typical Democratic formula in closely divided states.
Warner’s victory marked an upswing for Democrats, who made steady gains during the George W. Bush presidency. The state became a national battleground in 2008 and 2012, with Barack Obama winning both times and ending Republicans’ 40-year winning streak in presidential elections. Republicans won back some momentum on a tide of backlash to Obama as president, but the rapid growth of left-leaning regions such as Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads eventually pushed Democrats back to the fore. Republicans haven’t won a statewide election since 2009.
By 2016, Virginia was no longer a swing state, even though its more rural congressional districts still voted reliably Republican, and Clinton carried the state by 5 points. The backlash against Trump hit hard in Virginia. In 2017, Democrats swept statewide elections and came within a single disputed vote of winning parity in the House of Delegates, where Republicans had held power since the ‘90s. In 2018, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, easily won reelection by a 16-point margin, and Democrats flipped three of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts as suburbs that were long considered GOP strongholds moved hard to the left. The 2019 legislative elections gave Democrats control of both the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates.
In 2020, Democrats are looking to flip yet another district, the 65% rural 5th congressional district, which is among the 10 most rural-by-population districts in the country. The seat was held in the early 2000s by Virgil Goode, a lawyer who was elected as a Democrat in 1996, but who became an independent in 2000 and a Republican in 2002. Goode was unseated during the 2008 Obama wave, but the district flipped back to the GOP in 2010. It’s been held by three Republicans since then; the most recent, Denver Riggleman, was defeated in a drive-thru primary convention in June, in part because he officiated a same-sex wedding in 2019. The new GOP nominee is a social conservative far enough to the right, who faces a strong enough Democrat that the Crystal Ball and Cook Political Report both list the race as a toss-up, just two years after the district went for Republicans by 6.5 points in what was otherwise a Democratic wave year.
Virginia stands on the leading edge of a demographic change that’s mirrored to lesser degrees in North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and South Carolina, roughly in that order.
“This is a longer-term story in that you can argue that’s been going on for decades in the South,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “The Democrats have sort of fallen apart in white rural areas, but typically Republican, suburban and exurban areas are becoming more Democratic.”
Since it voted for Obama in 2008, North Carolina has become a prominent battleground in presidential elections. This year is no different, especially with a high-profile race for U.S. Senate.
“The way that I look at the electorate in this state is that both sides have a pretty solid and locked in 44%, 45% of the electorate,” said Michael Bitzer, a political analyst and political science professor at Catawba College. “They ain’t going to the other side. Then you’ve got this shrinking component in the middle that can and will split tickets.”
With the exception of Obama in 2008, North Carolina has voted for Republican presidential candidates going back to Ronald Reagan in 1980. At the same time, Democrats have frequently won statewide elections for governor and U.S. Senate. Over the last decade, exceedingly close races have become the norm for North Carolina.
“To win by more than 5 percentage points in this state is probably a landslide,” Bitzer said.
North Carolina is 33.9% rural, with those areas spread across different parts of the state: from the Appalachian Mountains in the west, across the foothills of the Piedmont, to the lowlands of the east and the so-called “Black Belt” counties outside Durham.
“The old story of North Carolina was that it was three states: the mountains, the Piedmont and the east coastal region,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “Increasingly, there’s more similarity between different parts of the state. The new fault line is rural, urban and suburban. Even when you talk to legislators, they’ll often say they’ll find their closets allies on the opposite side of the state — the rural connection.”
Even that framing oversimplifies the state’s voting dynamics, though. Appalachia is considered to be a modern GOP stronghold, but Cooper points to his home 119th state legislative district, which includes Jackson, Swain, and part of Haywood counties. It’s a rural district held by a Democrat, who is facing off against the same Republican opponent for the fifth time this year. The Democrat has won three of the four contests, with the exception of the 2016 race, and in 2020 “those two guys are going at each other again,” Cooper said.
The state’s competitiveness is driven largely by the growing number of voters choosing to be unaffiliated with either political party. Migrants and young voters between the ages of 17 and 45 have made “unaffiliated” the fastest growing group of voters in North Carolina. That trend is turning North Carolina, historically never as completely as Democratic or as Republican as its neighbors, into even more of a battleground.
“The realignment never finished here,” Cooper said. “Conservatives moving to the Republican Party and liberals to Democratic Party moved the South from a one-party South to a two-party South and then the one-party red South — it never finished here. We’re stuck in this partially completed partisan realignment that has defined a lot of people’s vote choice since. People are more comfortable changing from party to party.”
Besides the presidential race, North Carolina voters will decide on a governor and U.S. Senator. Lifted by the pandemic and the spotlight it has shown on state governors, Gov. Roy Cooper appears to be relatively safe in his bid for re-election. The U.S. Senate race is entirely different.
When Republican Thom Tillis first won election in 2014, he was supported by 48.8% of voters — the lowest winning total for the U.S. Senate in state history. That made him a Democratic target, even before the pandemic and accompanying economic downturn of 2020. Democrats nominated Cal Cunningham, a lawyer, retired military officer, and former state senator who is running several points ahead of Tillis in recent polls.
The race was thrown into disarray in early October, when over the course of a few days, Tillis revealed that he had contracted coronavirus, while the married Cunningham admitted to sending sexually charged text messages to a California public relations strategist. Early voting begins in North Carolina on Thursday, October 15.
Farther to the South, Georgia, 24.9% rural, has emerged as another growth state that’s has become a battleground. Clinton invested in trying to win it in 2016, but Trump prevailed by 5 points. Two years later, Democrat Stacey Abrams came within 2 points, or about 55,000 votes, of defeating Republican Brian Kemp in the governor’s race.
“She does this by mounting a different kind of campaign,” said Bullock, professor at the University of Georgia. “Democrats from the time they lost control of the state in the early 2000s through 2016 tried to win it back by hoping to lure back into the fold Democrats who had left around 2000. Abrams makes a different kind of pitch: she does not run as a moderate, she runs as a progressive. Her notion was she could make up the difference she needed to win by mobilizing African Americans and other minorities and by mobilizing young voters. It doesn’t quite work out for her, but she does chip into that Republican margin.”
The Biden campaign has taken a hybrid approach, running on a more progressive platform and targeting younger and minority voters, while also making a play to win older voters and wavering Republicans who are disconcerted with Trump.
“The polls show very very small slivers of people who claim to be undecided,” Bullock said. “For the campaigns, it’s mainly trying to mobilize their voters. For a Democratic victory in Georgia, African Americans have to be mobilized, which they’ve been doing recently in election cycles. Where Democrats have come up short is their inability to get 30% of the white vote. Hillary Clinton manages only 21%, Stacey Abrams hits 24%. Now what’s interesting is that recent polling is showing Biden right around 30% — one poll had him at 29.4%, another at 31% — so he’s about where he needs to be to win Georgia.”
At the least, Biden’s relative competitiveness in Georgia is forcing Republicans to spend time, energy and money shoring up a state that’s historically been part of its firewall in the South.
“Back in the summer we started seeing an inundation on television and radio from both campaigns making a play as far as advertising and talking about their campaigns,” said Karen Owen, assistant professor of political science at the University of West Georgia. “I would say you had some momentum on the Democratic side — and then nothing happened. Biden’s not come to the state. Dr. Jill Biden did a Zoom fundraiser, but it wasn’t well covered. Then, though, we’ve had a huge swell from the Trump campaign. The Republicans are spending money that they probably would not have had to spend in 2016.”
Biden and Trump are taking very different approaches to advertising in Georgia. Here are examples of videos from each candidate
Georgia is also home to a rare “double-barrel” U.S. Senate race, with both seats up for election. Republicans are generally favored in both, but the races have seen the GOP candidates take different tacks with regard to Trump.
Republican incumbent, U.S. Senator David Perdue, “Although he has been Trump’s best friend for four years, doesn’t talk about Trump,” Bullock said. “On the other side where we have this jungle primary [a nonpartisan qualifying primary], Kelly Loeffler [the incumbent] and Doug Collins are trying to outdo each other in who’s closer to Trump. Perdue didn’t have to fight off a Republican challenger in a primary, so he can drift toward the center, where in the wide-open race where two Republicans are trying into a runoff in January, they’ve got to portray themselves as being more Trump than the opponent.”
The importance of the rural vote to Republicans can be seen in the cultural signifiers the candidates are projecting in their campaigns. Perdue, a businessman who lives in the luxury gated community of Sea Island, famously used a jean jacket in 2014 to cut against his image as a corporate executive, said Owen. Loeffler, a corporate businesswoman who was appointed to the Senate seat this year after Johnny Isakson resigned for health reasons, has tried to follow suit.
“Loeffler has some ads that must be playing to rural voters, because she’s always in jeans, plaid and boots,” Owen said. “It’s a farm-esque image that’s not what you’d think about seeing from your businesswoman senator. That message is targeting rural voters, like, ‘I’m one of you.’”
On the Democratic side, Jon Ossoff, who narrowly lost a 2017 special election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, is challenging Perdue and appealing to rural voters through a policy message that’s targeting healthcare. As in other parts in the country, especially in states that have not expanded Medicaid, Georgia’s rural hospitals have struggled, with five closing since 2010, according to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Polling has shown Perdue with a narrow but consistent lead over Ossoff in one Senate race, while the other has oscillated between Loeffler, Collins and Democrat Raphael Warnock. If no candidate in the race wins a simple majority in November, the top two finishers advance to a January runoff.
In the demographic and partisan shift among Southern growth states, Texas and South Carolina lag behind North Carolina and Georgia, but are showing signs of change as well. Democrats are mounting significant challenges in House races in both states, and in South Carolina, Republican incumbent U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham has faced an unexpectedly fierce challenge from Democrat Jaime Harrison.
The Biden campaign has been hesitant to invest heavily in either Texas or South Carolina — likely because those states don’t look as competitive as others and because of the sheer cost of competing in Texas, which is home to multiple expensive media markets. November’s results, however, may change that calculation for future candidates.
The changing political lean of Southern states demonstrates that rural America still has a vital part to play in national politics — but it’s one that’s rapidly changing with political realignment and the disruptive influence of President Trump.