Why Jimmy Carter Couldn't Win Today's South
Two events last month made for a strange juxtaposition: a celebration of a Southern president, Jimmy Carter, after he disclosed his battle with cancer, and the enthusiastic crowds that turned out in the South for the Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
There are few political figures with more differences between them. Carter is a former nuclear submarine commander and born-again Sunday School teacher; Trump, an egocentric real-estate magnate, and Senator Cruz of Texas is a self-styled right-wing rabble-rouser who relishes belittling Carter.
Today's South, or at least the majority white South, belongs more to Cruz or Trump than to the former Democratic president and governor from Georgia.
Bill Clinton, another Southerner, didn't do quite as well, but he won the culturally conservative states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, as well as the border states of Kentucky and West Virginia. Shortly before his 1992 victory, he even thought he could carry Mississippi; he didn't.
Now, only Virginia. Florida and North Carolina are competitive in a national race. The other Southern states are reliably Republican. When Carter was president, 78 out of 108 House members were white Democrats; today only 14 of the 138 representatives from these states meet that description.
The number of black voters in the South has grown, as has the new Hispanic population. But both groups are outnumbered by white voters who have become overwhelmingly conservative and Republican.
"It's religion, economics, the military, immigration; race is only part of it," says Merle Black, a professor at Emory University and expert on Southern politics.
There have been two seminal moments. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he predicted to an aide that there'd be a white backlash enabling the Republicans to dominate Southern politics for a long time. Racial animosities in the region have further been stirred by the election of the first black president.
The second was the creation of a powerful Christian conservative political movement. Carter captured his fellow born-agains in the 1976 presidential contest, but they turned on him and mobilized into a potent force that has remained Republican since. Much of this strength has to do with cultural/moral issues such as opposition to abortion and gay rights. There also is a racial element, such as immigrant-bashing and false claims that President Barack Obama wasn't born in the U.S.
Evangelicals or born-again whites, who form the base of the Republican Party, account for as much as 40 percent of the electorate in some Southern states. Obama narrowly lost North Carolina in the last presidential election; white born-agains were 35 percent of the vote and went almost 4-to-1 for Mitt Romney. Most Democratic gubernatorial and senatorial candidates have done almost as poorly in the South.
The region's clout in the Republican party will be evident with the first big round of presidential nomination contests -- the so-called SEC primary, named after the Southern college football conference. Six Southern or border states will be voting and could tilt the race even more to the right.
The several states that are competitive have had a major influx of new voters, in areas such as the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington and North Carolina's Research Triangle. A University of Virginia study a few years ago found "a transformation in Virginia's population" changed the state's politics. In general, these newer residents are less culturally conservative and more receptive to voting for Democrats.
Another bright note for Democrats: Six of the Southern states that are out of play for them -- Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, South Carolina, Louisiana and Tennessee -- have a total of 49 electoral votes. California, which used to be reliably Republican in presidential elections, but has gone Democratic in the past half-dozen national races, has 55 electoral votes.
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