President Obama’s landslide victory in 2008 was supposed to herald the beginning of a new Democratic era. And yet, six years later, there is not even a clear Democratic majority in the country, let alone one poised for 30 years of dominance.
It’s not because Mr. Obama’s so-called new coalition of young and nonwhite voters failed to live up to its potential. They again turned out in record numbers in 2012. The Democratic majority has failed to materialize because the Republicans made large, countervailing and unappreciated gains of their own among white Southerners.
From the high plains of West Texas to the Atlantic Coast of Georgia, white voters opposed Mr. Obama’s re-election in overwhelming numbers. In many counties 90 percent of white voters chose Mitt Romney, nearly the reversal of the margin by which black voters supported Mr. Obama.
While white Southerners have been voting Republican for decades, the hugeness of the gap was new. Mr. Obama often lost more than 40 percent of Al Gore’s support among white voters south of the historically significant line of the Missouri Compromise. Two centuries later, Southern politics are deeply polarized along racial lines. It is no exaggeration to suggest that in these states the Democrats have become the party of African Americans and that the Republicans are the party of whites.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, at a campaign rally in Sanford, Fla. Credit Jim Young/Reuters
The collapse in Democratic support among white Southerners has been obscured by the rise of the Obama coalition. Higher black turnout allowed the Democrats to win nearly 44 percent of the vote in states like Mississippi, where 37 percent of voters were black. But the white shift is nearly as important to contemporary electoral politics as the Obama coalition. It represents an end, at least temporarily, to the South’s assimilation into the American political and cultural mainstream.
Estimate of Where Obama Lacks White Support
Areas where Obama won 20% or less of the white vote in 2012
Sources: U.S. Census, Edison Research (exit polls)
Note: Based on analysis of exit polls and U.S. Census data; data not available for Alaska
The South gradually became more like the rest of the country starting in the middle of 20th century, with desegregation, followed by migration of Northerners to the Sun Belt. Standards of living in the South, which had long