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Generational Change, In-Migration and Democratic Prospects in the South

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Are young southerners turning toward the Democrats?

Are people moving into the South inclined toward the Democrats?

When will the southern Democratic Party be competitive again?

The historic realignment of southerners from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party stands as one of the most dramatic and consequential developments of the past century.

Analysts have suggested that this "red" revolution will shape the nature of southern and national politics for many decades. However, recent research offers hopeful signs for regional Democrats; in fact, the data hint at the beginnings of competitive party politics in this part of the country.

Some of my political science colleagues recently presented their current work on generational change and in-migration patterns; and the patterns they observed could prove significant for the future of politics in this region.

Charles Prysby, professor at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, focused on the 2012 elections; and D. Sunshine Hillygus and McKenzie Young, both of Duke University, looked at the past four decades. Their data came from the American National Election Study (ANES), a commonly-used source for political information.

Generational Change.

Dr. Prysby probed several aspects of the changing southern electorate. Most importantly, he wanted to know if and why young voters might differ from other southerners in their partisan tendencies.

He found that "millennials" (those 18-34 years of age in 2012) displayed stronger attachments to the Democratic Party, noticeably different from seniors (those 65 and older), who are the most Republican generation. His analysis also showed that, in 2012, millennials favored the Democratic Party about 20 percentage points more than did seniors and over 10 points more than voters in between these polar generations.

Prysby said that millennials are pro-Democratic because more of them are non-white and partly because younger whites are relatively liberal compared to older whites. He reasoned that Democratic candidates are likely to gain slow and uneven electoral support as these younger citizens replace older generations.

Therefore, he expects competitive party politics to develop as generational replacement unfolds, provided that the other generations remain as they currently are and if the next generation resembles millennial voters.

His final comment was that, while there is sufficient uncertainty to make the future of southern politics interesting and worthwhile, "the direction of change in southern politics could be changing."

In-Migration.

Dr. Hillygus and Dr. Young took a look at a different source of change in southern politics. They noted the increasing pace of population flow into the South from outside the region; and they found that white migrant southerners today are more Democratic than native southerners.

They pointed out that many recent migrants are younger, more diverse, urban, educated, and less likely to be married; and they are more racially tolerant. Such trends, the scholars speculate, probably help explain why some areas of the region supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

The authors examined party identification and voting throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Overall, they reported that "there are substantial differences in partisanship, ideology, and vote choice between southern natives and in-migrants;" moreover, they said that "though in-migrants aided the growth of the Republican Party in the 1970s and 1980s, recently they are more likely to have Democratic leanings than their native counterparts."

Finally, Hillygus and Young called attention to the role of African-Americans and Hispanic migrants in the changing South. The "New Great Migration" of black people returning to the region further benefits the Democratic Party; and, while it is unclear how Hispanics will align, the GOP handling of the immigration issue could accrue to the advantage of Democratic candidates.

Their judgment is that "If Democrats are able to position themselves to successfully attract African-American, Latino-American, and in-migrant populations, they may well be able to reclaim areas of a region that has become dependably Republican."

When?

My colleagues are not predicting Democratic comeback in the 2014 elections.

Prysby cautioned against pre-mature Democratic celebration. Republicans could maintain their strength by converting existing voters, from voters moving into the South from other regions, by greater mobilization of GOP voters, and by winning the vote of the next generation.

Hillygus/Young warned that the effects of migration are gradual; more specifically, they added, "the impact of the Republican-led redistricting and the effects of incumbency advantage may well temper the impact of in-migration in the near future."

Commentary.

I wrote a series of posts last year to the effect that 2010 represented the culmination of a half-century of partisan realignment in the South; and I advised Democrats that their hopes for a better day would involve building a foundation for uncertain but possible resurgence over the long haul.

The current research efforts of Prysby, Hillygus and Young seem to corroborate that sober assessment; however, their data suggest nascent beginnings for a more competitive party politics in the South.

AUTHOR NOTE: This column is part of a series of posts about Southern Politics. These posts derive from the 2014 Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, a gathering of regional specialists in historic Charleston, SC. This Symposium has been held every-other-year since 1978; and it has become a "main event" for serious South-watchers from around the country. A hundred specialists -- representing scholars from about fifty academic institutions -- participated in the most recent conference, March 6-7, 2014. In this series, I will attempt to incorporate pertinent aspects of the presented papers and some of my own comments into various themes.