An interesting discussion has ensued over the role of the South in presidential elections. Karen Cox, a professor of history at UNC-Charlotte, wrote in the New York Times that “it’s tough being a Southern liberal,” especially to the chagrin of non-Southern liberals in a region that appeared (with the exception of Virginia and Florida) solidly red in this year’s election.
Cox argues that, like much of the rest of the nation, the South is experiencing a great urban-rural divide. In the national exit polls, urban areas (cities over 50,000) went 62 percent for President Obama, while “small city and rural” areas went 59 percent for Romney.
In suburban areas, the split between the two candidates was nearly even, with Romney besting the president 50% to 48%.
In a counter to Cox’s argument, Alec MacGillis presents a racial thesis to the difference between the South and non-South for liberals to contemplate.
In MacGillis’ point-of-view, it is white Southern voters that is the biggest hurdle for the Democrats to overcome. A Pew Research Center poll found that only 27 percent of Southern whites supported the president, while that number was 46 percent outside the South. But it wasn’t the president’s race, MacGillis contends, that made him perform poorly in the South because John Kerry didn’t necessarily do any better in 2004.
The other aspect that MacGillis points out is that while Southern urban counties did perform well for Obama, it was “a function of the cities’ large black populations rather than, as [Cox] implies, a reflection of more progressive-minded white voters.”
Both of these articles, along with others, leads to a continued discussion about the impact of regionalism in American electoral politics, especially due to the fact that only two states (Indiana and North Carolina) flipped from 2008 to 2012, much like the fact that only 3 states flipped from 2000 to 2004.
In looking at the totals so far from the 50 states (from David Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Elections website), if you were to divide the nation into four regions, you would find that the South shed the fewest votes cast for the president (Obama dropped barely half-a-million votes from his performance in 2008), while the Northeast, Midwest, and West saw nearly 1.5 million votes lost in each, in comparison to 2008.
Granted, one needs to compare the performance of Obama to his GOP rivals to give an adequate sense of the different regional support. In the South, Obama trailed McCain by 2.4 million votes in 2008; this year, he trailed Romney by 3.3 million votes. In comparison, in the Northeast and West, Obama handedly beat Romney, with the Midwest a closer divide between the two candidates.
Difference between Obama & McCain
Difference between Obama & Romney
Here in North Carolina, it’s probably best to combine both the Cox and MacGillis theses as an early approach to explaining this year’s election.
If you plot out Obama’s vote share within each of the state’s 100 counties with the percentage of white registered voters in each county, you get a pretty clear picture of both arguments.
In the state, as the percentage of white registered voters increased, Obama’s vote share decreased; those counties that delivered less than a third of the vote for Obama (lower right-hand area of the above graph) are all rural counties.
Considering that the South constitutes 160 electoral votes (60% of the 270 needed to win), it would make sense that non-Southern Democrats not write off their Southern brethren so haphazardly.