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Dem Convention Brings Attention to Political Changes in the South

The Democratic convention in Charlotte is beginning to generate some decent coverage of political dynamics in the southern states. When President Obama won the electoral votes of Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, along with 47 percent of the popular vote in Georgia back in 2008, his victory provided a compelling rebuttal to the "skip the south" strategy going forward. As a northern refugee now living in the sunny south, however, I'm not sure that the scope and pace of the demographic transition now underway even in the deep south is yet well-understood.

Fortunately, some good reportage on the topic has recently emerged. Start with Chris Kromm's Facing South post, "As Goes the South: Your convention guide to Southern politics 101," which explains:

...while states in the Mountain West had similarly large percentage increases, Southern states are bigger and had larger increases in total numbers. That trend appears to be continuing: The Census Bureau estimates that the states adding the most people between 2010 and 2011 were Texas (529,000), California (438,000), Florida (256,000), Georgia (128,000) and North Carolina (121,000)...Southern states gained eight Congressional seats and Electoral College votes in post-Census redistricting and reapportionment. Today, nearly one-third of the total Electoral College votes needed to be elected president come from Southern states -- and that share will likely grow in the future.

In other words, bypassing the South (for Democrats) or taking the region for granted (for Republicans) is not an option for any party interested in a winning political strategy.

With respect to the explosive growth of Latinos in the 13 southern states, Kromm adds:

Nine of the 12 states with the fastest-growing Latino/Hispanic populations in the 2010 Census were in the South. The political clout of Latinos is clear in a state like Florida, where Latino eligible voters increased by two-thirds over the last decade and now make up nearly 17 percent of the state's voters. But the Latino electorate is also growing in North Carolina, with registrations doubling since 2008 and making up two percent of voters -- enough to sway a close election...The key here is a registration gap. In North Carolina, for example, about 60 percent of eligible Latino/Hispanic citizens aren't registered to vote. (For great information on the Latino vote, visit www.latinovotemap.org.)

And, the African-American vote is pivotal for Dems, especially in the south, As Kromm says:

Half of the nation's African-Americans live in Southern states. An under-reported story of the 2010 Census was the growth of black communities in the South -- including an acceleration of return migration from cities in the North and Midwest. The growth is especially clear in cities: Six of the 10 urban areas with the biggest increase in African-Americans were in the South, including Charlotte (number six, 121,500-person increase) and two in Florida (Miami, where the black population grew by 191,700, and Orlando, by 100,600)

In a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Aaron Gould Sheinin noted that,

In January 2001, Georgia's electorate was 72 percent white and 26 percent black, while Hispanics made up less than two-tenths of 1 percent, according to data compiled by the secretary of state. As of Aug. 1, those numbers had changed dramatically.

Blacks now make up 30 percent of active registered voters while whites are at 60 percent. Hispanics make up nearly 2 percent of the electorate after seeing their registration numbers increase from just 933 in 2011 to 85,000 as of Aug. 1.

Given recent polling and turnout patterns, it appears that, if Dems can win just three out of ten white voters in Georgia, they can take the state's electoral votes. Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz, cited in Gould's article, doubts that the demographic changes will swing Georgia to Obama this year, but the odds favoring Dems will improve significantly in future elections. Meanwhile the Obama campaign is running plenty of TV ads in Georgia, and they have 57 paid organizers on the ground in key neighborhoods in GA, reports Gould.

In his AJC article, "Democrats try to make inroads in South," Wayne Washington quotes Republican U.S. Sen Lindsay Graham's surprisingly candid assessment, "The demographics race, we're losing badly. We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term."

Kromm concedes that the conservative rural vote is a still powerful factor outside southern cities. But the cities are where the growth is accelerating. He adds that voter suppression and anti-immigrant legislation remain potent Republican tactics to undercut demographic transition favoring Democrats. He could have added that, if not for draconian felon disenfranchisement laws, Florida (520,000 African American voters disenfranchised) and Virginia (242,000 Black voters disenfranchised) would likely be blue on political maps.

If President Obama can win two of the three southern states he won in '08, he will probably be re-elected. Regardless of the outcome of November 6 election, however, Republicans will be unable to stop the emergence of purple and possibly blue states in the south as early as 2016.