The Southern Problem

Governor Romney’s loss of almost every battleground state to President Obama has sparked a flurry of debate over the future of the Republican Party.  Whereas the party was once able to rely firmly on support from moderate, “middle American” white males along with small government fiscal conservatives and the religious right, moderates in 2012 presented Republicans with a loud and clear referendum on their election platform.  Why have Republicans become so unpopular with the center?  Perhaps Alex Carpenter put it best in his post-election jab at the right, tweeting that any party must have serious problems when you hear “The rape guy lost,” and have to ask “Which one?”

Yet silencing its more extreme wings, though clearly called-for, is not the only issue on which the GOP needs to refocus. There is, as many have noted, the increasingly key Hispanic vote, of which Obama won seven of every ten who voted in 2012.  Even more frightening than the influx of liberal Hispanic voters, however, should be the Republicans’ loss of Virginia two elections in a row, and even North Carolina, which is now considered a swing state, in the 2008 election. It’s not the electoral votes of these states themselves that are cause for concern: Obama still would have won both elections either way. But rather, it is the prospect of liberalization of the once solidly conservative former Confederate states that, if continued, is almost sure to make the Republican Party nationally irrelevant.

The Southern voting bloc has long been a boon to Republicans, and not only because of the electoral votes that used to be guaranteed from these states. For nearly a full generation before Obama’s election, it would be nearly impossible for a Democratic presidential candidate to be elected if he wasn’t originally from a former Confederate state. This was simply because without any of the Southern vote, Democrats had a very difficult time garnering enough of the other swing states to overcome the Southern Republican machine. Bill Clinton, a native of Arkansas, and Jimmy Carter, from Georgia, managed to win the presidency largely thanks to the support of their home states and their sphere of influence in the South.

This phenomenon, advanced by political scientists as the “native son” theory of Southern politics, had a few important effects.  First, it handed several elections to the Republicans when the Democrats couldn’t find a strong Southern candidate and had to choose a candidate from another part of country. Second, it had a profoundly moderating influence on the Democratic party and a rightward influence on the nation as a whole, as Democrats who hailed from Southern states — Bill Clinton being perhaps the best example — presented themselves as moderates instead of than leftists.

Obama’s election seemed to turn this theory on its head. In the wake of public mistrust of Republicans for the Iraq War and the handling of hurricane Katrina, Virginia and North Carolina, two once-solid red states, voted for the Illinois Democrat. Furthermore, at least in Virginia, this voting trend stuck: the state voted blue in 2012 even after the anti-Republican sentiment of the late Bush years had quieted. Even more troubling to Republicans is that this change was the result of an expansion of the blue suburbs of Washington DC into the northeastern region of the state, which includes voters that are unlikely to turn back to voting Republican. For North Carolina to even be considered a swing state at this point in time represents a sizeable shift from its traditionally Republican history.

The increasing presence of Hispanics, especially in states on the border or near Mexico, threatens Republican control of the former Confederate states from their southern borders as well.  Projections for the 2016 election predict that, if Hispanics continue to vote as liberally as they did in the last election, Republican states Texas and Georgia could become swing states if not blue altogether. Much of this can also be attributed to the growth of cities such as Dallas and Atlanta, which, though the rest of the state may vote red, have seen rises in population and, consequently, voters likely to vote Democrat.  In fact, it is the growth of cities, particularly in the South, that is likely to hurt Republicans most if these trends continue

All this boils down to one reality for the GOP: it needs to re-establish its appeal to moderates, city-dwellers, and Hispanics. Moderating the Republican position on immigration is easy enough. Yet to have any chance in the 21st century South and its cities — not to mention urban areas in the rest of the country — will almost certainly require not just moderation, but abandonment of some of the GOP’s somewhat archaic positions on social issues. If the party fails to accomplish this or buckles under pressure from its extreme wings, it will not only continue to lose swing states; it will lose its most important geographical power base and any chance at national relevance.

 

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