LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (AP) — The South steps into the spotlight of the 2016 presidential election in this week's Super Tuesday contests, a delegate-rich day that will highlight the region's sharp demographic and ideological divides.
In what was once a Democratic stronghold, the party now controls one governor's mansion, one Senate seat and no legislative chambers from the Carolinas westward to Texas.
The region's flip to Republican bulwark is steeped in decades-old shifts in the national parties that accelerated under President Barack Obama, who had little connection to white Southerners who used to keep Democrats in power.
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 broad economic and cultural changes. Democrats will depend on growing minority populations and voters 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 presidential campaign.
The changes have given Republican Donald Trump, hardly a conservative by traditional definitions, an unexpected foothold with voters who feel emboldened in the South and left behind by their party's leaders in Washington.
Trump has campaigned through the South with a rallying cry that long has resonated in the region.
"The silent majority is back!" he declared.
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."
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.
"A lot of it has to do with race: the first black president, immigration, other threats to social and cultural values," Fording said. "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.
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 evangelicals.
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 tenures 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 dramatic 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.
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. But Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, said Obama 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 Mark Pryor in 2014.
While the 2016 general election will 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 is in the region is also booming, creating a potential demographics advantage for Democrats.
The party has seen signs of progress in states like Virginia and North Carolina. As Democrats eye presidential elections in the coming years, they are particularly eager to see states like Georgia and Texas become more competitive.
"Is there a path back?" said Skip Rutherford, a prominent Arkansas Democrat and longtime friend of the Clintons. "There's always a path back."
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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