There's a lot to watch Tuesday night. But to me, nothing will be more interesting than seeing whether a Democratic presidential candidate can crack North Carolina for the first time in 32 years and Virginia for the second time in 60 years. And if so, whether that heralds the start of a new political dynamic in the South.
There are moments in history that determine how things play out for decades or generations. We might be at one of those points on Tuesday. Or it might be a passing flirtation.
Democrats owned the “Solid South” for the better part of a hundred years following the Civil War. Republican support for black rights during Reconstruction alienated the segregated South and led to Democratic domination for the last quarter of the 19th century and more than the first half of the 20th century.
That started to crack under Truman and really began to crumble with Kennedy's support for civil rights. When LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he doomed Democrats running for president in the South for almost all of the next 44 years. Hubert Humphrey was shut out from the entire South (Texas isn't the South) in 1968, and since then only Georgian Jimmy Carter in 1976 has fared well here. Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 won not a single Southern state.
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That was then, this is now
Now here we are, 2008, at what might be a turning point. Barack Obama leads in most polls in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, though I'd consider all three still to be toss-ups. Even Georgia is close. To be sure, the Deep South, including South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, are solid for John McCain.
What's going on here? A few things. Most obviously, you have a charismatic black candidate who has engineered history's most impressive turnout of black voters, including many who never voted before. Obama, though, has also tapped into the changing demographics of North Carolina and other Southern states to attract more liberal whites.
He has been helped by the worst economy in at least three decades, if not seven. Voters, by and large, trust the Democrats more on the issues. A new Elon University poll released Friday showed N.C. voters have more faith in Democrats on every major domestic issue, including the economy, education, health care and energy. Working-class whites who had migrated to the Republicans around social issues are now receptive targets for Democrats on pocketbook issues.
The old South doesn't exist
My predecessor, Ed Williams, sat down with Hodding Carter at the Levine Museum of the New South the other night to talk about the presidential election, North Carolina and the South. Carter was a crusading journalist in Mississippi during the Civil Rights era, a spokesman in the Carter administration and the president of the Knight Foundation in Miami. He is now a professor of leadership and public policy at UNC Chapel Hill.
He is also a shrewd observer of politics and public affairs, always filtered through his unabashed liberalism but astute nonetheless.
He argued the South has been changing for years, and now the South many of us have known – defined largely by race, religion and cultural history – exists in sporadic patches.
“This is the last election Republicans can win on old formulas,” Carter said. The South, he said, now has “a different complexion.”
Carter says to watch Virginia Tuesday night. He says as Virginia goes, the nation will go.
We might know whether the Republicans' dominance of our region has cracked after Tuesday night. Even if Obama wins, though, it will take at least four more years to learn whether his election was a one-time thing or the beginning of a newly competitive South.