It was like a little sweet tea at the end of the meal for Democrats when, four years ago, the Obama campaign defied decades of electoral tradition to bring North Carolina and Virginia into their fold.
President Obama's twin Dixie victories were not entirely necessary for his win in 2008, but they opened a new era of competitive politics in the once-deep-red South and represented a milestone in the states’ racially fraught histories—two former slave-holding states helping to elevate the nation’s first African-American president. The Tar Heel State had not gone for a Democrat since Southerner Jimmy Carter won in 1976. Virginia’s history as a Republican stronghold stretched back even further, to 1964 when the Old Dominion tipped to Lyndon Johnson.
Four years after Obama's triumph, battleground polls show that he could lose his tenuous grip on Virginia and North Carolina to Republican Mitt Romney. Yet political analysts and observers caution against writing off the pair's emergence as swing states as a one-cycle-wonder. It’s not time to write the political obituary for the “New South” quite yet.
True, in 2008, the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy, eight years of governance by a Republican administration, and an unprecedented financial meltdown created circumstances particularly favorable to the party out of power. But that’s not all that was behind Obama’s victory.
“Given the demographic change and the population growth of these East Coast states, they’re going to stay in the battleground category,” said Ferrel Guillory, a professor of Southern politics at University of North Carolina. “Democrats are not suddenly going to go away.”
An influx of young, college-educated, and minority voters during the last decade fueled the political evolution of both states. In Virginia, that transformation is concentrated in the Northern Virginia suburbs, where immigrant communities are plentiful as are upscale, college-educated whites. In North Carolina, the population shifts are happening in the Research Triangle Park near Raleigh-Durham and other metropolitan areas of the state.
Quentin Kidd, a political science professor who studies Southern politics at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, said that Virginia and North Carolina are coming to resemble Middle Atlantic states more so than their immovable Southern sisters below the Mason Dixon line.
“The demographic change has brought in a population of people such that traditionally Southern culture, the traditional Southern way of looking at government—that relationship is altered,” Kidd said. “Just enough so that there’s a strong voice out there that says ‘Hey, we want government to do certain things well’ and that means more government than we’ve traditionally had.”
One need only look at the tightness of the Obama-Romney race over the last several months to know that the days when the GOP could take Virginia and North Carolina for granted are gone. Despite their preference for Republican presidential candidates for most of the last half-century, the states also have a history of electing moderate Democrats to statewide office, such as Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and former Virginia governor Tim Kaine, now a Senate candidate.
“It’s the person who is moderate both socially and economically and moderate in their overall way they present themselves politically, who has a business oriented sense of how they solve problems but are sensitive to social concerns that groups in both parties have,” Kidd said.
Obama tacked a little more liberal than the typical Democrat able to reap success in the South, Kidd added, but made up for it by promoting post-partisan politics, energizing African-Americans and sparking record youth turnout. Others will have to come up with their own formula.
Republicans too will need to recalibrate the kind of candidate they run given the new status quo. "North Carolina is not Tennessee, it’s not Mississippi, it’s not a bedrock red state where you can sort of just run on the very standard conservative principles,” said GOP consultant Brian Nick, who is advising Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory this year. “You can win as a conservative but I think you need to stress an economic message and a fiscal message and kitchen-table issues.”
It’s a remarkable turn of events for a state that gave segregationist Sen. Jesse Helms five terms not so long ago.
Former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., a moderate Republican, said that his party can do well in both states if it works harder to appeal to new constituencies in the future. “The days of Republicans continuing to run white guys statewide—they’re going to have to diversify,” Davis said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the economic message, but we need to make sure we broaden the messengers.”
As for Tuesday night, Gillory said that the stakes in the two states are high for Obama even though he could win without them. Winning one or both would show that he has support "in all of the regions of the country,” he said. “I just think that would elevate his presidency, in terms of history.”