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The splintering South: the growing effect of migration on Republican strongholds

Migration patterns have laid siege to southern Republican dominance. Solidly red states a generation ago—Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina—are now purple or bright blue. The Democratic presence in Texas and South Carolina grows as Florida remains a battleground. These are all “fast growth” states. The remaining Republican bulwark represents a declining portion of the Southern electorate. If the South is the core of the modern Republican Party, its days are numbered.

The post-Reconstruction era “Solid South” was overwhelmingly Democratic. But as the Democratic Party began to champion efforts to honor the civil rights of African Americans in the latter part of the 20th century, conservative white southerners fled the Democratic Party, paving with the way for Republican dominance. At the dawning of the 21st century, the South was a Republican region. In the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, Democrats failed to win a single southern state.

Since then, however, progressivism is making a southern comeback. President Barack Obama won three southern states in 2008, and Democrats have won states in each of the last four presidential elections. Virginia is now consistently blue. Georgia and Virginia both have two Democratic Senators for the first time since the 1970s. And even in some states won by President Trump in 2016 and 2020 (e.g. North Carolina and Texas), Democratic prospects are improving dramatically.

The sea change in southern politics is not simply a function of national trends; in the Midwest, for example, Democratic strength is apparently declining. The partisan shift is not even manifest throughout the South. In states like Alabama or Tennessee, it seems that Republicans are as strong as ever. But in a set of fast-growing southern states, Republican prospects are fading. The Democratic presence in Texas and South Carolina grows as Florida remains an intensely contested battleground state.

“Growing states are becoming significantly more progressive; stagnant or declining states are not, and migration patterns are fueling these differences.”

Politically, the South is splintering, and dramatic differences in population growth have created the fault line along which this break is occurring. Growing states are becoming significantly more progressive; stagnant or declining states are not, and migration patterns are fueling these differences. In Movers and Stayers: The Partisan Transformation of 21st Century Southern Politics, I show that movers—migrants from other regions or other parts of the South—tend to be younger, more educated, and somewhat more racially diverse than southerners who stay put. In 1975, migrants from other regions were far more likely to Republicans than native southerners. Today, movers are more likely to be Democrats. The states and counties they move to are becoming more progressive. Conversely, the states and counties southern movers vacate tend to become more Republican. A key facet of this political transformation is the impact of movers on stayers (long-term community residents), specifically white stayers. White stayers in economically vibrant and increasingly diverse growth areas become more progressive. White stayers in demographically-challenged areas incurring the loss of the young and (often) educated are becoming more Republican. However, African Americans and Latinos in these stagnant or declining communities do not shift to the political right as whites do.

Significantly, the new sub-regional distinction between the growing and the stagnant South does not map onto the traditional distinction between Deep South and Rim South. Since V.O. Key published Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949), scholars have considered the Deep South states of the “black belt”—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina—the bastion of racial conservatism, and as white racial conservatives fled the Democratic Party, the citadel of Southern Republicanism. Due to movers and stayers dynamics—and the nationalization of our racialized politics—black context no longer drives white racial conservatism. The partisan differences generated by population growth have eroded the traditional distinctions between the Deep South and the Rim South. Growing states are becoming more progressive whether they are in the Deep South (Georgia) or the Rim South (Virginia). By the same token, stagnant states have become Republican standard bearers whether they are in the Deep South (Alabama, Mississippi) or the Rim South (Arkansas, Tennessee).

The changing character of southern politics has important implications for the future of our political parties. The core of support of the modern Republican Party is the South. If the South is to be the future of a nationally competitive party, Republicans will need to attract movers and the increasingly-progressive communities to which they are attracted. Given the increasing progressivism of the growth states—states which will only play an increasingly prominent role in southern politics—the social and racial conservatism of today’s Republican Party pose a serious obstacle to continued competitiveness in the 21st century South (and the US more generally). Absent a more inclusive organization with a future-focused agenda committed to competent and capable government, Republicans’ hold on the South may well be history.

Feature image by Clay Banks

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