From Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at UNC Chapel Hill and a senior fellow at MDC Inc.:
Contrary to popular perception abetted by novels and movies of a rather timeless, past-haunted land, the South has in fact undergone regular cycles of change.
Barack Obama tested whether the South's most recent burst of demographic, social and economic change had produced enough political change to give a black Democratic presidential candidate a chance in states that denied most black citizens access to the ballot box just four decades ago. Obama targeted three states in the region – Virginia, North Carolina and Florida – and won each of them.
That achievement has significance for the South, for the nation and for the Obama presidency.
Since Richard Nixon formalized a Republican “Southern strategy” for his 1972 re-election, the South has served as the base of a GOP electoral majority. Most Southern states remained in the Republican column in 2008. But by denying John McCain a portion of that base, the Obama campaign exposed an erosion of the “Southern strategy”.
The Obama campaign did not split the South but rather illuminated a split that had already occurred. The State of the South 2007, a report by MDC Inc., a Chapel Hill research firm, reported that robust growth in the South “has not been evenly distributed” and that “the region's center of gravity has increasingly shifted toward the Atlantic Ocean.” It is not coincidence that Obama won Seaboard-South states that have galloped into the new, knowledge-based economy and have burgeoning metropolitan areas as their economic engines.
It is important, historically and symbolically, that the nation's first black president won support in at least some states that practiced legal segregation not so long ago. He won those states with an overwhelming majority of African Americans and with a strong plurality among white voters, especially among young adults. Obama will enter the White House with a broad-based coalition that includes Southerners.
On the Thursday after the election, The New York Times assessed the president-elect's achievement in the South under the headline, “Obama Makes Historic Inroads in South.” Earlier this week, The Times took note of the white Southerners who remained Republican voters in a story under the headline, “For South, a Waning Hold on National Politics.”
The Times had it right the first time.