Why Obama Hasn’t ‘Lost’ the South

A shift in thinking means entire regions are less prone to such tribalism

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Wang Yiou / Xinhua / Landov

President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign event at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., on May 5, 2012

For me, perhaps the most striking tactical story of the 2008 presidential campaign was the surprising reaction to Barack Obama in the American South. As a native of the region, I was long skeptical about the Illinois Senator’s viability in the Old Confederacy and thus about his national viability.

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He needed at least one win among Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas. After all, the last candidate for President to win the White House without carrying a single Southern state was James Garfield in 1880. (His opponent: the forgotten-but-hugely-successful-in-the-South Winfield Scott Hancock.)

And Obama did it, winning Florida, Virginia and North Carolina — to use an image favored by political scientists, an impressive picking of the lock of the GOP’s Solid South.

Can he do it again? The task would seem to have gotten a lot more difficult with the President’s newly announced support for same-sex marriage, an issue that was partly in the news because North Carolina voters overwhelmingly rejected it in a referendum. Yet Obama remains the leader in each state according to RealClearPolitics’s calculations — if only barely.

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I had friends in the South e-mailing last week that Obama was now done in Dixie, but I’m not so sure. The fact that Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri remain statistical toss-ups suggests that the more diverse and moderate parts of the South should now be thought of as genuine swing states rather than as breakaway republics from a post-Nixon GOP bloc.

Such a shift in thinking would have implications beyond electoral math and maps. It would, I think, signal that the country is less given to reflexive tribalism now than it has been in the past — a very good thing indeed. It would mean that neither party could safely write off whole regions. Republicans and Democrats would, instead, be forced to compete in places where they might be compelled to seek votes by appearing open to compromise and to hearing the other side’s point of view — something we see little of at the moment.

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It would be wonderfully ironic if the South, so long a source of national division and discord, could help 21st century America toward a richer political conversation. Yet it may happen, and when it does, I suspect it won’t be particularly evident. The drama of red vs. blue is so beguiling in its simplicity and its power that the quieter stories of states weighing more nuanced choices often go untold until after the votes are in. That’s the nature of the process. But if Obama remains competitive in several Southern states — and there is every sign that he will — then we may just get a chance to live with that irony.