The Changing Face of Southern Voters
By Chris Kromm
Nov 29, 2012
The South is undergoing big demographics changes.
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One of the biggest stories coming out of the 2012
elections was the changing demographics of U.S. voters.
The increasing racial diversity of the nation's
electorate was key to President Obama's victory -- and
cast growing doubts on the long-term viability of a
Republican Party if it continued to draw its strongest
support from whiter and older voters.
The Pew Research Center broke down the numbers in its
Overall, Obama benefited from relatively strong
turnout -- both nationally and in key battleground
states -- among young people and minorities ...
African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans
backed Obama by huge margins.
Nationally, nonwhite voters made up 28% of all
voters, up from 26% in 2008. Obama won 80% of
these voters, the same as four years ago.
But how did the new emerging majority fare in the South
-- a region which, if viewed only through the lens of
Electoral College votes, appears to be a large swath of
First, it's important to remember that -- as Facing
South has covered before -- the winner-take-all view of
red and blue states obscures the South's political
reality, which remains deeply purple.
You'd hardly know it from the media frenzy about
secession petitions, but in 2012 18.6 million
Southerners in 13 states voted for President Obama --
about 45 percent of Southern voters -- compared to 22.6
million for Romney.
And while it's true that Obama's approval ratings
lagged the most in Southern states heading into the
elections, by Election Day the president's share of the
vote in Southern states had dropped by only 1.5 points
between 2008 and 2012 -- almost identical to Obama's
decline in votes nationally.
But the fact remains that Obama only won two out of the
13 Southern states. So the question remains: What
impact did demographic change have in the 2012
elections in the South? And what political clout does
the new, emerging majority in the South really have?
Focusing on the big three Southern battlegrounds --
Florida, North Carolina and Virginia -- we have two
sources for looking at the electoral clout of the
emerging Southern majority. One is the exit polls
collected by Edison Research for national media
outlets; the other is state voter registration
Neither is perfect. The exit polls, which in 2012
included random surveys of voters at the polls as well
as phone surveys to account for early voters, are only
a rough snapshot of the electorate. The further you
drill into the data, the smaller the sample size and
the greater the margin of error (already 4 percent for
the national figures). Voter registration statistics
only tell you who is on the voter rolls, but not if and
how they voted.
But together, they offer a glimpse at how demographic
changes -- which are happening more quickly in many
Southern states than in the rest of the country -- are
affecting the Southern political landscape.
The following chart shows how the electorate is
changing in the three states:
The biggest changes have happened in Florida. According
to the exit polls, the number of Florida voters who
didn't identify as white grew from 29 percent in 2008
to 34 percent in 2012. That closely parallels the
increase in Floridians who marked a race or ethnicity
other than white on their voter registration forms -- a
4 percent increase over the same time period.
The increasing racial diversity of the electorate was
clearly critical to Obama's victory in Florida in 2012,
which he won by less than one point. In such a tight
race, winning big margins among African-American voters
(95 percent), Latinos (60 percent) and those who
identified their race/ethnicity as "other" (59 percent)
In 2012, Virginia also ended up falling into Obama's
column, but according to the exit poll figures (the
only data we have to work with now, because the state
doesn't collect voter registration information by
race), it wasn't due to a big change in the electorate
since 2008. For every racial/ethnic group, the share of
the state's voters stayed the same: 70 percent
identifying as white, and 30 percent African-American,
Latino/Hispanic, Asian-American or other.
While Obama's support among white Virginia voters fell
from 39 to 37 percent in the four years since 2008, it
was again the high support among African-Americans (93
percent), Latinos (64 percent) and Asian-Americans (66
percent) that propelled him to victory.
And what about North Carolina? Both exit polls and
voter registration figures show that the share of white
voters declined by two points between 2008 and 2012.
Like Florida, the N.C. exit polls showed the share of
African-American voters holding steady (which echoes
N.C. voter registration statistics), with growth coming
mostly from Latino/Hispanic voters.
Interestingly, the exit polls showed 4 percent of N.C.
voters identifying as Latino/Hispanic, while they only
represent 2 percent of N.C. registered voters. Whether
this is due to a high turnout among Latinos or
statistical noise in the exit polls remains to be seen.
But in a state where white support for Obama dropped to
31 percent, it was Obama's high support among African-
Americans (96 percent), Latinos (68 percent) and
"others" (52 percent) that kept North Carolina close.
What's the upshot? The Southern electorate is clearly
changing -- in different ways and at varying speeds,
depending on where you look, but undeniably changing.
And while this analysis only looks at three states,
these are trends unfolding in every Southern state.
Aside from sheer numbers, the impact that emerging
majority voters have in any given Southern state
clearly depends on various factors. One is the
resources invested in mobilizing them: By one estimate,
Obama had more than 100 field offices in Florida, part
of a massive investment that helped register and turn
out tens of thousands of new majority voters in the
state. North Carolina had about half as many offices,
and by November the campaign was signaling they were
pulling out of the state entirely.
But as with the rest of the country, the question isn't
if the Southern electorate is going to profoundly
change in the coming years, but by how fast and how
much -- with lasting implications for the future of
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