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Magazine / COVER STORY

For GOP, A Southern Exposure

Republican strength in the South has both compensated for and masked the extent of the party's decline elsewhere.

May 23, 2009

Founded in the decade before the Civil War as the Northern voice of union, the Republican Party today is more electorally dependent on the South than at any point in its past.

In the House and Senate, nearly half of all Republicans were elected from that region, defined as the 11 states of the Confederacy, plus Kentucky and Oklahoma. In each chamber, Southerners are a larger share of the Republican caucus than ever before. Similarly, beginning with the 1992 presidential election, the South has provided at least 59 percent of the Electoral College votes won by the GOP nominee, including by George W. Bush in his 2000 and 2004 victories. That percentage is nearly double the South's share of all Electoral College votes and by far the most that GOP presidential nominees have relied on the region over any sustained period.

Republican strength in the South has both compensated for and masked the extent of the GOP's decline elsewhere. By several key measures, the party is now weaker outside the South than at any time since the Depression; in some ways, it is weaker than ever before.

 

Today the GOP holds a smaller share of non-Southern seats in the House and Senate than at any other point in its history except the apex of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's popularity during the early days of the New Deal. What is perhaps even more dramatic is that Republicans in the past five presidential elections have won a smaller share of the Electoral College votes available outside of the South than in any other five-election sequence since the party's formation in 1854. Likewise, since 1992, Republican presidential nominees have won a smaller share of the cumulative popular vote outside of the South than in any other five-election sequence since the party's founding, including the five consecutive elections won by Roosevelt and Harry Truman (1932 to 1948).

The Republican domination of the South "looked great when we were holding on to our Northeastern and Midwestern seats and continuing to sweep the South," said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster who specializes in Southern races. "The challenge arises when the rest of the country says, 'I don't believe the same things,' or 'I don't admire the same candidates,' as the South does."

Since Bush's re-election in 2004, the GOP has lost ground electorally in the South and the rest of the nation. But the erosion has been much more severe outside the South. That dynamic has threatened Republicans with a spiral of concentration and contraction. Because the party has lost so much ground elsewhere, the South represents an increasing share of what remains -- both in Congress and in its electoral coalition. The party's increasing identification with staunch Southern economic and social conservatism, however, may be accelerating its decline in more-moderate-to-liberal areas of the country, including the Northeast and the West Coast. "Many of the things they have done to become the dominant party in the South have caused them to be less successful in other places," said veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, a South Carolina native.

These intertwined trends -- the Republican Party's growing reliance on the South and the erosion of its strength elsewhere, particularly along the coasts -- have prompted some unusually public soul-searching within the GOP about whether the party has grown too defined by the unflinchingly conservative priorities of its most loyal region. Although the GOP congressional leadership includes more non-Southerners than it did in the 1990s, much of the party's most militant opposition to President Obama has come from Southern leaders, such as South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The Texan even raised the possibility of secession in response to Obama's initiatives.

In the view of former Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H., who was defeated in 2006, "The current crisis of the Republican Party is whether it wants to be a regional party or whether it can try to expand ideologically and appeal to other regions."

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, argues that the election of Republican governors in New England, the Midwest, and California refutes the idea that the GOP is becoming excessively Southern. "If it wasn't for the governors, it would be more of a danger, more of an issue," Barbour said. "When I became a Republican in 1968, we were not a national party. We weren't competitive in a lot of the South. And you don't want to ever get as a party where you are not competitive in any area of the country."

Although not as severe, the regional challenges now confronting the GOP resemble those that Democrats faced in the first decades of the 20th century, when Republicans dominated Congress and the White House. From 1896 until Franklin Roosevelt's election in 1932, the Solid South, which still rejected Republicans as the perpetrators of "Northern aggression" in the Civil War, provided the sole regional base for the depleted Democrats. But throughout much of that period, the Democrats' pervasive identification with the South made it harder for them to loosen the Republicans' commanding grip on the rest of the country. In those years of Democratic decline, "the South was the majority faction in a minority party," notes Emory University political scientist Merle Black, co-author of the 2002 book The Rise of Southern Republicans. "And now it looks like the Southerners are becoming close to a majority faction in a minority Republican Party."

Presidential Balloting

For seven decades after the end of Reconstruction, Republicans were pariahs in Southern politics. From 1880 through 1948, Republican presidential nominees did not win a single state in the Old Confederacy, except Tennessee in 1920 and Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia in 1928, when Democrats nominated Northern Catholic Al Smith. Over that long period, the only other Southern states that Republicans carried were in the outer South: Kentucky in 1896, 1924, and 1928; Oklahoma in 1920 and 1928.

In terms of presidential politics, Republicans made their first inroads into the South from 1952 to 1964, when Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Barry Goldwater each won five to seven states there. After the Democratic-controlled Congress joined with Democratic President Johnson to end state-sponsored segregation by enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the traditional Southern Democratic coalition shattered. In 1968, Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey won only one Southern state, Texas; Nixon carried seven; and former Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, a segregationist running as an independent, carried the other five.

Since then, Republican presidential nominees have dominated the South. In the five elections from 1972 to 1988, Republicans won all of the South's electoral votes three times (1972, 1984, and 1988) and more than 90 percent of them in 1980. During that period, the only Democrat to win a majority of Southern Electoral College votes was former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter in 1976.

From 1972 to 1988, Republicans ran nearly as well outside the South as they did in the South. In three of that period's five presidential elections (1972, 1980, and 1984), the Republican nominee won at least 90 percent of the non-Southern Electoral College votes. Likewise, the party's nominee won almost three-fourths of them in 1988 and nearly three-fifths of them in 1976.

Beginning in 1992, the GOP's fortunes in the South and the non-South diverged. Since then, the GOP has remained strong in the South. Even as Arkansas's Bill Clinton was twice winning the White House for the Democrats, the GOP won about two-thirds of the region's Electoral College votes. In 2000 and 2004, Texan George Bush won all of the South's Electoral College votes, even though his first race was against a fellow Southerner, Al Gore of Tennessee. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama made potentially significant inroads into the region by capturing Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia -- Southern states influenced by outside migration -- but Republican John McCain still won two-thirds of Southern Electoral College votes.

Elsewhere, though, the GOP's presidential performance has tumbled in recent election cycles. Democrats have won at least two-thirds of the Electoral College votes outside the South in each of the past five elections. Even Bush won only about 30 percent of the non-Southern Electoral College votes in 2000 and again in 2004.

In all, across these past five presidential elections, Republicans have won an average of only 21.1 percent of the Electoral College votes at stake outside the South. That's less than the 22.7 percent of the non-Southern Electoral College votes they captured in the five elections from 1932 through 1948. In fact, as noted above, from 1992 through 2008, the GOP won a smaller share of non-Southern Electoral College votes than it did during any other five-election sequence since the party picked John C. Fremont as its first presidential nominee in 1856.

As the Republican Party weakened elsewhere from 1992 to 2008, the 13 Southern states provided 59 to 69 percent of all the Electoral College votes won by its presidential nominees. Only once before had the region provided more than 36 percent of the party's Electoral College votes. The exception was in 1964, when five Southern states were the only places Barry Goldwater won outside of his native Arizona.

The story is similar with the presidential popular vote. For many decades after Reconstruction, the GOP was annihilated in the South: None of its nominees, for instance, exceeded 30.1 percent against FDR or Truman. But the party established a Southern beachhead from 1952 through 1964 (winning just under half of the region's votes) and raced past the Democrats after Wallace's insurgency.

In all 10 elections from 1972 through 2008, the GOP presidential nominee outpolled the Democratic nominee in the South, except in 1976 when native son Carter beat Gerald Ford in the region, according to calculations performed for National Journal by Polidata, a political data analysis firm. In seven of these 10 elections, the Republican nominee won an absolute majority of Southern votes -- four times reaching at least 57 percent. As he did in the Electoral College, Obama made inroads in last November's popular vote: He won 46 percent of Southern votes, more than any other Democrat since 1976 except for President Clinton in 1996. Even so, McCain drew a solid 53 percent of the region's votes.

From 1972 through 1988, the Republican nominee also carried the non-Southern popular vote each time, according to Polidata. In 1992, however, the South and non-South diverged once again. Starting that year, the Democratic nominee has outpolled his Republican rival in the non-Southern states each time. And the Republican nominee has exceeded 45 percent of the popular vote in the non-South only in 2004, when Bush won re-election while attracting almost 48 percent. In 2008, Obama crushed McCain outside the South, receiving 56 percent to his rival's 42 percent, Polidata found. That 14-point difference was the third-widest margin of victory ever for a Democrat over a Republican in the non-Southern states. Only Johnson in 1964 and Roosevelt in 1936 exceeded it.

Overall, Republicans won just 41.9 percent of the cumulative presidential popular vote outside of the South from 1992 through 2008, the Polidata calculations show. That was a stunning drop from their average of 53.3 percent in the non-South from 1972 through 1988. It was also less than the 45 percent of the popular vote that the GOP won in the non-Southern states during the five elections of the FDR-Truman era, a halcyon time for the Democratic Party.

Like the GOP's showing in the Electoral College, the Republican popular-vote tally outside of the South since 1992 is, in fact, the party's worst performance for any five-election sequence since its founding. The last time either party fared so poorly outside the South over five elections was 1916 through 1932, when the Democrats won only 40 percent of the non-Southern cumulative popular vote. The Republican total was low in 1992 and 1996 in part because independent candidate Ross Perot siphoned off votes from both major-party nominees. But third-party candidates split the vote in earlier periods, too. And even considering only the votes for major-party candidates, the Republican average in the non-Southern states from 1992 through 2008 is the party's worst showing ever over any five-election sequence.

A Similar Pattern On The Hill

Republicans were just as marginalized in Southern congressional contests as they were in the region's presidential races for many decades after Reconstruction. From 1900 through 1960, Republicans held more than 10 percent of the South's House seats in only three Congresses. In the Senate, between 1878 and 1960, the GOP only once -- in 1924 -- held more than two of the region's 26 seats. In the 20th century, Republicans did not elect a senator from the Old Confederacy until John Tower won the Texas seat that Lyndon Johnson vacated in 1961.

In both chambers, Southern Republicans started advancing in the early 1960s. Their gains accelerated over the next quarter-century, as a powerful constellation of issues -- including school busing and civil rights, abortion, gun control, gay rights, taxes, and national security -- drove legions of conservative white Southerners from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

The Republican share of Southern House seats doubled from 7.5 percent in 1960 to 15 percent in 1964, crossed 30 percent in Richard Nixon's 1972 landslide, and reached 36 percent when Ronald Reagan routed Jimmy Carter in 1980. Dixie Democrats largely held their ground for the next decade, but in 1994, the backlash against Clinton's chaotic first two years allowed Republicans to win a majority of Southern House seats for the first time since 1868.

The GOP's Southern progress in the Senate followed a similar track. The party grew from three seats in 1962 to 10 in 1972 and 12 during President Reagan's first term, before losing some ground later in the 1980s. The 1994 Republican surge then lifted the number to 16, giving the GOP its first majority of the South's Senate seats since 1872.

After the 1994 election, Republicans controlled a majority of House seats not only in the South but also in the non-South (about 53 percent in each case). Holding House majorities both inside and outside the South was another post-Reconstruction first for the party, Merle and Earl Black noted in The Rise of Southern Republicans. Following the 1994 election, Republicans also controlled most Southern Senate seats and exactly half of non-Southern seats.

In a pattern similar to the presidential balloting, the GOP's experiences in the South and the non-South diverged after 1994. The party has remained strong across the South. From 1996 through 2004, Republicans controlled at least 17 Southern Senate seats (peaking at 21 seats) and consistently won about three-fifths of Southern House seats. In both chambers, Republicans have surrendered some Southern seats since 2006 because of the public's widespread disillusionment with Bush's performance. (Most notably, Democrats have gained 11 Southern House seats.) But, the GOP still holds 56 percent of the region's House seats and 19 of its 26 Senate seats. Outside the South, though, the GOP's position has sharply deteriorated. In the House, the party's non-Southern majority held for only two years, falling to 49 percent in 1996. Through 2004, the party retained control of nearly half of non-Southern House seats. The bottom fell out in 2006. Over the past two elections, the GOP share of non-Southern House seats has plunged to just 33.5 percent. Only twice in the party's history has it controlled a smaller share of House seats outside the South -- after the 1934 and 1936 elections at the height of FDR's popularity.

The GOP has followed a similar downward trajectory in the Senate. Republicans held exactly half of the chamber's 74 non-Southern seats from 1994 through 1998, but their share fell to around 45 percent during Bush's first term. After sharp losses in 2006 and 2008, the Republican share of non-Southern seats has dwindled to around 28 percent (counting Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter as a Democrat). That is the smallest percentage of non-Southern Senate seats controlled by Republicans, except after the 1936 FDR re-election landslide that reduced the GOP to its modern low point in Congress.

The Republicans' Southern advance has steadily tilted the balance of power in the congressional GOP toward the region. With only a single exception, the share of the House Republican Conference from the 13 Southern states has increased in every Congress since 1960. (Only the Congress elected in 1986 broke the pattern.) The progression hasn't been quite as linear in the Senate, but even there the South tripled its share of Republican seats from 9 percent in 1962 to 28 percent in 1992, before rising steadily to about one-third in 2000.

The party's losses in other regions during George W. Bush's second term shifted the balance even more sharply toward the South. In the House, the share of Southern members in the Republican caucus jumped from about 37 percent in 2000 to 45 percent now; in the Senate, the South's share spiked from 34 percent in 2000 to 48 percent now (19 of 40 members). In both chambers, the Republican conference is now considerably more concentrated in the South than ever before. These percentages far exceed the contribution of the 13 Southern states to Congress's overall makeup (about one-fourth of the Senate and one-third of the House). They also represent the biggest Southern tilt in either party since Dixie provided a comparable share of House and Senate Democrats in the mid-1950s.

Pulled To The Right

From Reconstruction through the modern civil-rights era, a consuming -- and often insurmountable -- challenge for Democratic leaders was reconciling the priorities of a solidly conservative South with the views of the party's supporters elsewhere. Republicans today face a similar test. Over the past 50 years, with the decline of the party's moderate wing, the GOP's center of gravity has shifted to the right. But more often than not, the South still defines the party's right flank.

Southern House Republicans, for instance, have overwhelmingly opposed Obama, even on the handful of issues where he's made inroads among GOP legislators from other regions. Nearly one-third of House Republicans from outside of the South supported expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program, but only one-tenth of Southern House Republicans did so. Likewise, just 5 percent of Southern House Republicans supported the bill expanding the national service program, compared with 22 percent of Republicans from other states. (In the Senate this year, there's no such gap between Southern and non-Southern Republicans. Few moderates from any region remain in the Republican Conference.)

Overall, the GOP's congressional leadership is more regionally diverse than it was in the 1990s, when it was dominated by Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Dick Armey of Texas, Trent Lott of Mississippi, and other Southerners. But in Congress and beyond, Southern Republicans have frequently led the resistance to Obama, heatedly denouncing his initiatives. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has described Obama as "the world's best salesman of socialism." Southern governors such as Sanford, Barbour, and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal headlined the Republican opposition to Obama's stimulus plan, condemning it as a federal intrusion into states' rights and even rejecting some funding. Texas Gov. Perry trumped them all for provocative positioning when he suggested in April that Obama's plans were so onerous they might prompt Texans to consider trying again to secede. Perry no doubt was trying to consolidate conservative support heading into his gubernatorial primary next year, not launch a genuine secessionist movement. But his inflammatory language, which ignited an inevitable cable television and blog conflagration, dramatized the extent to which Southern voices now define a Republican Party explicitly formed in the North as a counterpoint to Southern political influence.

Carrick, like many other Democratic strategists, believes that these ideologically assertive Southern Republicans are hurting the GOP's appeal elsewhere, particularly because cable television has made each party's leaders more visible than a generation ago. "It makes them look... extreme and that they are engaged in partisan political fights that are irrelevant to achieving success," Carrick says. "It is definitely a losing spiral that... is reinforced every day by the 24/7 news cycle."

Like Barbour, South Carolina Gov. Sanford rejects the idea that the South is disproportionately influential within their party. In any case, he says, the arguments that he and other Southerners have raised against Obama offer the party its most promising path back to power. Republican recovery "is probably less about new bells and whistles and more about the core of what made the party great in the first place, which is the angle of limited government," Sanford said. "I believe our political destiny is more closely tied to our roots than in trying to add new features."

A broad range of Republicans supports a return to small-government arguments. Nevertheless, some GOP strategists are gingerly suggesting that staunchly conservative Southerners are putting too much of their own stamp on the party, especially on social issues. GOP consultant Mike DuHaime, political director of McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, said that "everybody in the party is concerned" about the GOP's decline along the coasts and in the Upper Midwest. "It's important that we always keep our base [in the South] as part of our party, but we need to have the ability to disagree on certain issues. That's the only way we are going to expand," he said. Republican pollster Ayres concurs. "The South is an incredibly important part of the Republican coalition, but it's not sufficient to win," he said. "You may very well have standards that are somewhat different for a Republican in the Philadelphia suburbs than you do for a Republican in Alabama."

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, appears to have taken that thinking to heart, pursuing moderates for 2010 Senate contests in several Democratic-leaning states, including Connecticut, Delaware, and Illinois, where Democratic troubles or departures have brightened GOP prospects. Democrats are also giving Republicans openings in several high-profile gubernatorial races in blue states outside the South, including Illinois, New Jersey, and New York. Those opportunities create some optimism among Republicans that they may have hit bottom in the non-Southern states. Yet, given the extent of the party's decline there, it may be some time before Republicans recover enough strength outside the South to truly threaten the generation-long southward migration in the party's center of gravity.

Meanwhile, demographic trends could create new challenges for Republicans within their Southern stronghold. The Republican position in the Deep South is fortified by a racial paradox: In the states with the highest proportion of black voters (such as Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi), Democrats usually attract the smallest percentage of white voters, partly because African-Americans are seen as dominant in the Democratic Party.

But the growth of other nonwhite populations, such as Hispanics and even Asians, is strengthening Democrats across the region, especially in the outer South, and even in portions of the Deep South such as Georgia. These "new minority" voters functioned like a thumb on the scale last year for Obama in Virginia (where they reached 10 percent of the vote) and North Carolina (where they comprised 6 percent). They were also instrumental in tipping Florida to the Democratic presidential nominee. "When you add the Democratic vote among African-Americans with that of the new minorities, that means the share of the white vote a Democrat needs to win goes down," notes Merle Black.

Eventually, Hispanic population growth might even threaten the Republican hold on Texas, where whites last year constituted just 63 percent of the vote, the same as in California. Demography alone probably won't flip Texas: To capture it, Democrats will almost certainly need to improve their performance among whites there, too. (Obama won just one-fourth of them, compared with twice that in California.) But at the least, Black notes, the growing nonwhite vote is allowing Texas Democrats to become competitive again in the state that has functioned as the jewel in the crown for Southern Republicans.

Questions about the GOP's regional balance may come to a head when the party picks its next presidential nominee. The 2012 race could pit several strong contenders from the South -- including Sanford, Jindal, and Barbour -- against competitors from other regions, such as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Carrick predicts that a Southern Republican nominee in 2012 would "solidify all of the current trends" toward Democrats among young people and socially moderate white-collar suburbanites outside the South. Another Republican Southern nominee, Carrick maintains, "would say that it is a regional party but [also] that the prevailing ideology in the party is too far out to be competitive."

Barbour, not surprisingly, dismisses this analysis. He believes that the next GOP nominee's region is less important than the candidate's skills and whether the country has lost faith in Obama. "Could a guy from Alabama, Louisiana, or Texas get elected president as easily as one from Illinois under those circumstances?" Barbour asked. "I think the answer is yes."

As on so many other fronts, the debate over the party's 2012 nominee shows how the GOP's Southern drift is forcing Republicans to confront variations of the political dilemmas that long confounded the Democrats. From Truman in 1948 until Obama in 2008, the only Democrats who could hold enough of the South to build a majority national coalition and win the White House were Southerners: Johnson, Carter, and Clinton. Republicans now face the mirror-image challenge of recapturing enough territory beyond the South to assemble a winning national coalition. For decades, Democrats ardently debated whether they could elect a president who was not from the South. Before long, Republicans may debate with equal passion whether they can elect another president who is.

 

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