POLITICS

Has Obama Created A New South?

02/21/2010 10:20 pm 22:20:29 | Updated May 25, 2011

Post-election analysis of Barack Obama's runaway victory has generally settled on one macro-theory: he put a symbolic end to the significance of the Southern states.

How else to explain how the nation's first African-American candidate -- and one with an exotic name at that -- was not only able to rack up wins in North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida, but also win the presidency without their Deep South neighbors?

The South, we are told, is dead.

"By leaving the mainstream so decisively, the Deep South and Appalachia will no longer be able to dictate that winning Democrats have Southern accents or adhere to conservative policies on issues like welfare and tax policy, experts say," the New York Times reported on Tuesday. "That could spell the end of the so-called Southern strategy, the doctrine that took shape under President Richard M. Nixon in which national elections were won by co-opting Southern whites on racial issues."

On a more micro-level, however, an argument persists. While Obama was able to marginalize a region that for forty-plus years has both consumed and perplexed Democrats, did he change the political dynamics there? Is the South different or just no longer so important?

In a presentation to a small group of reporters immediately after the election, Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist and head of NDN, argued that a new South was in fact emerging. Noting the expansion of economic hubs in the region -- Raleigh, Richmond, and Atlanta among them -- as well as the rapid growth of minority populations, the former Bill Clinton aide concluded that the region had fundamentally changed.

"The arrival of this new post Southern Strategy age of American politics will be accelerated by the extraordinary level of political participation of Millennials, the largest generation in American history, whose life experiences and values are much more Obama than Nixon," read an organizational memo.

The data, to a certain extent, supports his position. The South, as the American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein wrote in a recent op-ed, was "liquid" in 2008. Obama proved that a candidate could be successful in the region without depending on white voters. In fact, in the states he lost, he was absolutely trounced by McCain among this constituency: approximately 90 percent of white voters supported the Arizona Republican in Alabama and Mississippi; 75 percent or more supported him in South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia and Texas.

On the Senate side, ads that normally drove resentment towards Democratic candidates were no longer as effective. Elizabeth Dole calling her opponent "godless," for example, didn't have much resonance or pull.

And yet, at the same time, there are those in the Democratic Party who preach caution when imagining the South as a wholly new political entity. Noting that re-alignments have been predicted before, Paul Begala, another veteran of the Clinton years and a Texan himself, argued that the party was "halfway home with a long way to go," in terms of establishing permanent Southern roots.

"Having lived though the Clinton revolution, Gingrich revolution and the Bush revolution, I am very cautious of claiming permanent political alignment," he said. "I saw Karl Rove the other week and was reminded of his words: permanent Republican majority... the truth is, you would rather have our math than theirs. You would rather be the blue team then the red. But you just can't take anything for granted: 16 years ago Clinton carried Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida once. We carried zero of those states in 2000 and 2004."

Certainly, Democrats can take heart in the fact that they have gained national power without being dependent on the South. Obama's election proved as much; the fact that the party controls both houses of Congress without having a majority of Southern Congressional seats -- a feat first noted by Thomas Schaller -- is further evidence. But it remains to be seen whether the region has been merely marginalized or is primed to become Democratic turf once again.

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