Part of the answer lies in long-standing, and increasingly evident, differences between the states of the Deep South (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina) and those of what scholars often call the Rim South (Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia). Three factors are particularly important in understanding Hyde-Smith’s victory and the variation in the political landscape across the region.
1. Voting is extremely polarized along racial lines in the Deep South
First and foremost is race. Every Deep South state has a higher percentage of African Americans (on average 30 percent) than Rim South states (on average 16 percent) — and Mississippi leads the way with a black population of 38 percent. At first glance, that would seem to imply that the Deep South would be favorable territory for Democrats, since African Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic.
But as the political scientist V.O. Key observed decades ago, the biggest effect of a large black population in the South is to polarize voting along racial lines. As a result, white voters in the Deep South are more solidly Republican than whites in the Rim South. For instance, in the 2012 reelection of the first African American president, 75 percent of Deep South whites voted for the Republican Mitt Romney, while in the Rim South, only 61 percent of whites did. Because whites are so reliably Republican in states like Mississippi, the GOP can dominate statewide elections, despite relatively large numbers of black voters.
Since 2010, Republicans in the Deep South have controlled every state legislative chamber (with almost no black Republican lawmakers), while all 10 of these legislative chambers — the House and Senate in each of the five states — have a Democratic opposition that is majority African American. And since 2008, blacks comprise the majority of Democratic presidential primary voters in every Deep South state.
2. The urban-rural divide helps Republicans in the Deep South
The urban-rural divide also makes states like Mississippi difficult terrain for the Democrats.
In the 2018 midterms, 65 percent of urban voters supported a Democratic House candidate, while just 42 percent of voters in rural areas did, according to exit polls. (Suburban voters were evenly split.) That’s one reason Democrats made some gains in the Rim South, where 80 percent of voters live in urban settings. But in the Deep South, the share of urban residents is just 67 percent, meaning that a large number of voters live in rural areas, parts of the country that have become Republican bastions.
At 51 percent rural, Mississippi remains the only state in the South with a majority of residents still residing outside urban areas. With less than 3 million residents, Mississippi is now the least populous among the 11 ex-Confederate states. From 2010 to 2016, the Magnolia State’s population actually experienced a net loss of more than 35,000 residents. In other words, Mississippi doesn’t have many of the urban and suburban professionals who were an important part of the Obama coalition, and who contributed to 2018 Democratic congressional victories in high-growth metropolitan sections of Florida, Texas, and Virginia, as well as smaller gains in South Carolina and Georgia.
3. The Yankee and Latino populations are growing more slowly in the Deep South
Deep South states like Mississippi have experienced less “in-migration” from Democratic parts of the country in recent years than have several Rim South states. For instance, 52 percent of those recently moving to Virginia, the South’s most Democratic state, have come from the deep blue Northeast. As recent studies have shown, the influx of northern migrants has directly contributed to Democratic strength, including Barack Obama’s narrow 2008 victory in North Carolina.
But in contrast, only 20 percent of recent northern migrants to Mississippi hail from the Northeast. That’s the eighth lowest rate among the 11-state South.
Finally, the Latino population is growing in southern states beyond Texas and Florida. In 2017, the first two Latinas won Virginia House of Delegates seats. But while the South-wide Latino population stands at 18.7 percent, it makes up just 2.9 percent of Mississippi’s residents, the lowest percentage in the entire region, according to a 2016 Census.
The South is certainly changing in ways that are yielding benefits for the Democratic Party. But Hyde-Smith’s victory in Mississippi, despite the controversy over her racial appeals, is a reminder that different parts of Dixie are changing at very different speeds.
Seth C. McKee is associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University and the current editor in chief of Political Research Quarterly.