The South takes its place in 2016 campaign spotlight

AP News
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Posted: Feb 29, 2016 6:13 AM
The South takes its place in 2016 campaign spotlight

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Eight years ago, Democrats were such a dominant force in Arkansas that Republicans didn't bother putting up a challenger for a U.S. Senate seat.

Today, the state that launched the careers of generations of centrist Democrats, including Bill Clinton, has joined the rest of the South in largely turning its back on the party.

Democrats have control of just one governor's mansion, one Senate seat and no legislative chambers from the Carolinas westward to Texas. That stretch includes five states voting on Super Tuesday, a delegate-rich day of contests that will put the South in the spotlight.

The region's flip from Democratic stronghold to Republican bulwark is steeped in decades-old shifts in the national parties. But it's also accelerated under President Barack Obama, an urbane, African-American politician with little connection to white Southerners who once kept Democrats in power in the region.

That's left the South a starker, more sharply divided microcosm of the demographic dynamics at play across the country.

Republican presidential candidates are fighting for support from a mostly white electorate, including many voters who feel alienated by sweeping economic and cultural changes. Democrats will depend on growing minority populations and voters — white and nonwhite — clustered in heavily populated urban areas.

In the upcoming Southern primaries, that means Hillary Clinton could sweep the region, but with Democratic electorates that have much larger proportions of African-Americans than those that propelled her husband's successful 1992 campaign.

The changes have given Donald Trump, hardly a conservative by traditional definition, an unexpected foothold with voters who feel both emboldened in the South and left behind by their party's leaders in Washington.

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As Trump began campaigning throughout the South last year, he issued a rallying cry that has long resonated in the region.

"The silent majority is back!" he declared. The message was so well-received that Trump's campaign started distributing signs emblazoned with the phrase at rallies.

Trump's rhetoric harkened back to Richard Nixon's "southern strategy," a concerted effort to bolster support from working-class white voters in the elections that followed passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Nixon made frequent references to the "silent majority" and the "forgotten majority." In the years since, his aides have acknowledged that he patterned his approach after that of George Wallace, Alabama's segregationist governor and a two-time presidential candidate.

To Richard Fording, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama, there are similarities in the angst Nixon saw brewing in the Southern electorate a half-century ago and what Trump is tapping into now.

"There is this silent majority phenomenon," Fording said. "A lot of it has to do with race: the first black president, immigration, other threats to social and cultural values. There's a lot of anger, and it's very satisfying for people to listen to Donald Trump."

Exit polls from last week's Republican primary in South Carolina — the first Southern state to vote in the 2016 contest — showed that Trump can draw votes from the evangelical Christians and social conservatives who are the cornerstone of the GOP electorate in the region.

The twice-divorced New York real estate mogul won 33 percent of voters who described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians. That was more than any of his rivals, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose campaign is centered on appealing to religious and social conservatives, particularly in the South.

In Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee, all states that vote on Tuesday, evangelicals make up about 40 percent or more of the population, according to the Pew Research Center. Texas, which also votes Tuesday, lags slightly behind with about 31 percent of voters describing themselves as evangelicals.

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Unlike Trump, Hillary Clinton's ties to the South run deep. She spent 12 years as the first lady of Arkansas and was active in the state during her husband's terms as governor.

But the political shifts across the region have dramatically remade the Democratic electorate she faces on Super Tuesday.

When Bill Clinton was on the ballot in the 1992 Democratic primaries, the electorate in Georgia was 70 percent white and 29 percent black. In Alabama that same year, the Democratic primary electorate was 76 percent white and 23 percent black.

By 2008, exit poll data from Democratic primaries showed a major shift of whites away from the party in Southern states. In Georgia, 42 percent of voters were white and 52 percent black. In Alabama, it was 44 percent white and 51 percent black.

The trend looks certain to continue in the current election. According to exit polls in South Carolina, the only state with a sizeable black population to vote in the primaries thus far, 96 percent of voters in the GOP contest were white and about 60 percent of those voting in the Democratic race were black.

As the demographics have changed, the conservative Democrats who once represented the South in Congress and in governor's mansions have disappeared. Nowhere did that happen more abruptly than in Arkansas.

For years, Arkansas defiantly remained Democratic while its neighbors moved toward the GOP. Democrats like Bill Clinton, former Gov. Mike Beebe and former Sen. Mark Pryor thrived as centrists willing to buck the national party. Even Republican leaders in the state, like former Gov. Mike Huckabee, had to govern as moderates to draw support from powerful white conservative Democrats.

"Arkansas Democrats managed to present themselves as different from national Democrats for decades longer than Democrats in the rest of the South," said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas who runs an annual poll of the state's political landscape.

Parry said everything began to change under Obama, who was "so cosmopolitan that Arkansans could just not identify with him." Every Democrat at every level of government was essentially linked to Obama and fell like dominos, including Sens. Blanche Lincoln in 2010 and Pryor in 2014.

Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia professor who specializes in Southern politics, said that while moderate Democrats politicians still exist in the region, they see little incentive to launch campaigns in the South's current political climate.

"People like that right now are sitting on the sidelines," Bullock said. "You don't want to go out and run in a hopeless case."

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While the 2016 general election will likely be dismal for Democrats in the South, party leaders see reasons to hope the region can at least become competitive in the near future.

A majority of black Americans now live in the South, reversing a decades-long trend of migration to the north, and the Hispanic population in the region is also booming. Unless Republicans are able to increase their gains with both groups, the demographics should make the South more favorable to Democrats over time.

The party has seen signs of progress in states such as Virginia and North Carolina. Democratic candidates have found favor not only with minorities but also white northerners who have moved to the Washington, D.C., suburbs and the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. Still, the results in those states remain mixed, particularly in North Carolina, which has moved back to the right after Obama's upset win there in 2008.

As Democrats eye presidential elections in the coming years, they are particularly eager to see states such as Georgia and Texas become more competitive. Texas now has a majority minority population; Georgia is projected to follow in the coming decades.

"Is there a path back?" said Skip Rutherford, a prominent Arkansas Democrat and longtime friend of the Clintons. "There's always a path back."

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Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas, and AP News Survey Specialist Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jpaceDC