When Americans talk about the South, they tend to be talking about the past. When they talk about Southern politics, they tend to be talking about the old, stereotyped “Solid South”—that uniformly conservative, racist, anti-union, snake-handling cluster of former Confederate states that voted en masse for Democrats from the pre–Civil War through civil rights, then switched their allegiance to the former “party of Lincoln” beginning in the 1970s. Once LBJ and the Democrats betrayed the cause of white supremacy and Richard Nixon cooked up the “Southern Strategy,” the region became as solidly Republican as it once was Democratic. End of story.
Southern politics has never been quite so uncomplicated as that. It took decades for Republicans to outnumber Democrats, and Republican control of the region has never matched the Democrats’ former hegemony. The South has been contested ground for 40 years, with the GOP dominating federal elections and gradually cutting into the Democrats’ hold on state and local offices—culminating in 2012, when Arkansas’s legislature became the last to go Republican. (Virginia’s Senate has a partisan split.)
Over the next two decades, it will become clear to even the most clueless Yankee that the Solid South is long gone. The politics of the region’s five most populous states—Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Texas—will be defined by the emerging majority that gave Obama his winning margins. The under-30 voters in these states are ethnically diverse, they lean heavily Democratic, and they are just beginning to vote. The white population percentage is steadily declining; in Georgia, just 52 percent of those under 18 are white, a number so low it would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.