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White voters are moving to the South — and making it more Democratic

- January 2, 2018

One of the biggest U.S. political stories of 2017 was the boost that the Democratic Party got in elections across the country, widely interpreted as part of a backlash against the Trump presidency. And much of the party’s success came where few expected it — in the South.

In November, Democrats swept statewide races in Virginia, picking up more than a dozen seats in the House of Delegates. In December, Democrat Doug Jones’s victory in the U.S. Senate election in Alabama spurred talk of the party’s resurgence in a region where Republicans have dominated for three decades.

These Democratic victories resulted in large part from high turnout and overwhelming support and activism among black voters. But recent research suggests that Democrats are also benefiting from another phenomenon — whites who have moved to the South. Since World War II, Americans have been migrating South. That’s picked up in recent years, aided by a relatively strong economy and — as anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line this week will appreciate — balmy winters. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 10 of the fastest-growing U.S. cities in 2016 were in the South, five in Texas.

How is this changing the Southern electorate?

In a new article, political scientists Sunshine Hillygus, Seth McKee, and McKenzie Young show that whites who have moved to the South are more likely to be Democratic than lifelong Southerners.

They draw this conclusion by looking at data going back to the 1970s from the American National Election Studies survey. Since 1968, the survey has asked respondents where they grew up. This allowed Hillygus and her colleagues to categorize white residents of Southern states as “natives” (people who grew up in the region) and “migrants” (people who grew up elsewhere). It’s important to note that their analysis focuses only on whites, so it cannot speak to the region’s growing diversity.

In the 1970s, migrants were significantly more likely to identify with the Republican Party than were native Southerners. That’s because at that point, the South had a long history as a Democratic stronghold in reaction to the Republican Party’s history as the party of Abraham Lincoln, with many white lifelong Southerners holding fast to their Democratic roots.

But as the Democratic Party increasingly supported the civil rights movement, that changed. By the 1990s, there was no relationship between whether someone had grown up in the South and party affiliation; white natives and migrants were equally likely to identify with the Republican Party.

By the 2000s, that shifted again — and Southern migrants were more likely to be Democratic than their native counterparts. In other words, whites who weren’t born in the South were, on average, moving it to the left. The region’s most reliable Republicans were people who had grown up there.

The pattern was similar when Hillygus and her colleagues looked at voting in presidential elections. In the 1970s and 1980s, Southern migrants were slightly more Republican than natives. But by the 2000s, migrants were about 12 percentage points more likely to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate than were natives. The authors’ analysis ends in 2008.

Obviously, whites are just one slice of the Southern electorate, so changes to white voting behavior can tell only part of the story of the region’s politics. But the data does suggest that in addition to the importance of the African American vote for Democrats, an influx of nonnatives into the South has benefited the party. McKee and M.V. Hood III argue that Barack Obama’s narrow victory in North Carolina in 2008 was made possible by migration from outside the state.

Of course, patterns of migration to all Southern states are not the same. The people moving to Virginia or North Carolina may not have the same political loyalties as those moving to Alabama and Mississippi. So how migration affects the political landscape is likely to differ from one state to the next.

Nonetheless, Hillygus, McKee and Young suggest that population growth in the South may make left-leaning white migrants “an underappreciated component of a Democratic coalition that may be slowly reversing the electoral fortunes of a dominant southern Republican opposition.”