Yet even as that incident evoked ugly memories of an earlier era, Election Day in the South told a newer and more surprising story: The nation’s first black president finished more strongly in the region than any other Democratic nominee in three decades, underscoring a fresh challenge for Republicans who rely on Southern whites as their base of national support.
Obama won Virginia and Florida and narrowly missed victory in North Carolina. But he also polled as well in Georgia as any Democrat since Jimmy Carter, grabbed 44 percent of the vote in deep-red South Carolina and just under that in Mississippi — despite doing no substantive campaigning in any of those states.
Much of the post-election analysis has focused on the demographic crisis facing Republicans among Hispanic voters, particularly in Texas. But the results across other parts of the South, where Latinos remain a single-digit minority, point to separate trends among blacks and whites that may also have big implications for the GOP’s future.
The results show a region cleaving apart along new electoral fault lines. In the region’s center, clustered along the Mississippi River — where Bill Clinton polled most strongly — the GOP remains largely unchallenged and the voting divide between blacks and whites is deepening. Nearly nine of 10 of white voters in Mississippi, for instance, went for Republican nominee Mitt Romney this year, according to exit polls. About 96 percent of black voters in the state supported Obama.
The pattern is markedly different in the five states that hug the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Florida, which together hold 82 of the South’s 160 electoral votes. A combination of a growing black population, urban expansion, oceanfront development and in-migration from other regions has opened up increasing opportunities for Democrats in those states.
“Georgia is an achievable target for Democrats in 2016,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a frequent Obama surrogate during the campaign. “What you’re going to see is the Democratic Party making a drive through the geography from Virginia to Florida.”
That will be easier said than done — particularly when the Democratic nominee is not Obama — but powerful forces in the region are clearly eroding GOP dominance. The trends pose difficulties for a Republican Party that has been shifting toward Dixie since the “Southern strategy” of the Nixon era, which sought to encourage white flight from the Democratic Party.
In every Southern state except Louisiana, the population of African Americans grew substantially faster than that of whites over the past decade. The growth is fueled by black retirees from the north and rising numbers of young, well-educated blacks in prosperous cities such as Atlanta, Norfolk, Charlotte and Charleston, S.C.