The Blue Bump Through the Suburban South

Guest Post by DDHQ Volunteer Jeff Ditzler

In recent election cycles, a split has emerged among the Southern states.  When Bill Clinton was running for President, Appalachia and the Mississippi Valley were the most favorable parts of the region to his candidacy.  He carried Arkansas (his home state), West Virginia, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee both times he ran, while coming up short in Virginia and both Carolinas.  (He won Georgia narrowly in 1992, but lost it in 1996.)  In the past few cycles, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton came within thirteen points of carrying any of the five states Bill Clinton carried twice.  Further east, Obama carried Virginia both times he ran, while carrying North Carolina narrowly the first time he ran and losing it narrowly the second time.  Last year, Hillary Clinton carried Virginia in a losing effort, making Donald Trump the first Republican presidential candidate since 1924 to win without the Old Dominion, while North Carolina and Georgia were narrower wins for Trump, as a percentage of the vote, than traditional battlegrounds Ohio or Iowa.

The foundation for the blue shift in the South Atlantic states has been increased Democratic strength among affluent suburban voters in and around Northern Virginia, Richmond, Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte, and Atlanta.  Two Virginia counties, Fairfax (immediately west of Arlington and Alexandria) and Henrico (immediately north of Richmond) voted for Bob Dole in 1996, but went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 with sixty-four and fifty-seven percent of the vote, respectively.  Three counties in suburban Atlanta (Henry, Gwinnett, and Cobb) went for Hillary Clinton when no Democratic presidential candidate had won there since Jimmy Carter was on the ticket, which goes a long way in explaining the interest that has surrounded the special election between Jon Ossoff and Karen Handel for Congress.

Could this trend create an opening for Democrats elsewhere in the South?  To find out, I took a look at thirty-one counties and parishes in seven states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee) that were never seriously contested by the Hillary Clinton campaign.  These were the counties where Hillary Clinton improved on Barack Obama’s margin of victory, measured by percentage of the vote (in other words, either Hillary Clinton carried the county by more than Barack Obama did in 2012, or Donald Trump carried it by a smaller margin than Mitt Romney).  Twenty-seven of these thirty-one counties were part of metropolitan areas, university towns, or both:

County/parish Description 2012 2016 2012-6 D gain
Williamson, TN Nashville suburbs Romney 72.6-26.1 Trump 64.2-29.2 11.46
Fayette, KY Lexington/U of Kentucky Obama 49.3-48.3 Clinton 51.2-41.7 8.43
Davidson, TN Nashville Obama 58.3-39.8 Clinton 59.8-34.0 7.29
Benton, AR Bentonville Romney 69.0-28.6 Trump 62.9-28.9 6.44
Washington, AR Fayetteville/U of Arkansas Romney 56.3-40.1 Trump 50.7-40.8 6.35
Pulaski, AR Little Rock Obama 54.7-43.4 Clinton 56.1-38.3 6.26
Oklahoma, OK Oklahoma City Romney 58.3-41.7 Trump 51.7-41.2 6.15
Shelby, AL Birmingham suburbs Romney 77.0-21.6 Trump 72.1-22.7 5.98
Oldham, KY Louisville suburbs Romney 67.5-30.9 Trump 62.1-31.3 5.55
Knox, TN Knoxville/U of Tennessee Romney 63.6-34.4 Trump 58.5-34.8 5.43

 

Tulsa, OK Tulsa Romney 63.7-36.3 Trump 58.4-35.6 4.52
Cleveland, OK Oklahoma City suburbs Romney 62.0-37.0 Trump 57.1-35.5 4.27
East Baton Rouge, LA Baton Rouge/LSU Obama 51.8-46.6 Clinton 52.3-43.1 4.02
Orleans, LA New Orleans Obama 80.3-17.7 Clinton 80.8-14.6 3.61
Jefferson, LA New Orleans suburbs Romney 58.2-39.9 Trump 55.3-40.6 3.52
Canadian, OK Oklahoma City suburbs Romney 77.2-22.8 Trump 72.3-21.1 3.13
Jefferson, KY Louisville Obama 54.7-43.6 Clinton 54.1-40.7 2.24
Madison, AL Huntsville Romney 58.5-39.9 Trump 54.8-38.5 2.23
Montgomery, AL Montgomery Obama 61.8-37.6 Clinton 61.5-35.5 1.73
St. Tammany, LA New Orleans suburbs Romney 75.0-22.8 Trump 73.1-22.3 1.45
Shelby, TN Memphis Obama 62.6-36.5 Clinton 62.0-34.5 1.41
Jefferson, AL Birmingham Obama 52.5-46.5 Clinton 51.6-44.3 1.29
Hinds, MS Jackson Obama 71.5-27.9 Clinton 71.1-26.6 0.89
Faulkner, AR Little Rock suburbs Romney 64.5-32.9 Trump 61.8-30.8 0.63
Lafayette, MS U of Mississippi Romney 56.8-41.5 Trump 55.4-40.6 0.52
Lafayette, LA Lafayette/U of Louisiana Romney 65.9-32.2 Trump 64.6-31.0 0.09
Payne, OK Oklahoma State U Romney 64.2-35.8 Trump 60.0-31.7 0.04

 

Just as in the South Atlantic states, counties in affluent, urban areas and college towns in the inner South swung toward the Democrats in 2016, with Nashville, Lexington, and the emerging area in northwest Arkansas around Bentonville (the headquarters of Walmart) and Fayetteville (home of the University of Arkansas) showing the biggest changes.  Interestingly, in Nashville, Birmingham, and Louisville, suburban counties showed bigger swings toward Hillary Clinton than the counties containing the center cities. The remaining four counties and parish are less predictable:

 

County/parish 2012 results 2016 results Dem gain
Texas, OK Romney 85.1-14.9 Trump 80.0-14.5 5.13
East Carroll, LA Obama 61.8-37.6 Clinton 62.5-36.0 2.30
Perry, KY Romney 78.5-20.0 Trump 77.2-20.2 1.56
Leslie, KY Romney 89.6-8.7 Trump 89.4-8.9 0.40

 

Only Texas County, in the panhandle of Oklahoma, has an easy explanation for its swing in the 2016 election: its population is over forty percent Hispanic, mostly of Mexican descent. The other three are a predominantly African-American parish in the northeastern corner of Louisiana that bucked the trend of declining black turnout and two Appalachian counties in Kentucky where Republicans didn’t have much room left to grow.

Can the Democrats use these trends to put these states back in play?  Although the counties where Clinton improved on Obama tend to be in and around population centers, Clinton’s margin of defeat was still wider in all of the states as a whole:

 

State 2012 results 2016 results GOP gain
Alabama Romney 60.6-38.3 Trump 62.1-34.4 +5.53
Arkansas Romney 60.6-36.9 Trump 60.6-33.7 +3.23
Kentucky Romney 60.5-37.8 Trump 62.5-32.7 +7.16
Louisiana Romney 57.8-40.6 Trump 58.1-38.5 +2.43
Mississippi Romney 55.3-43.8 Trump 57.9-40.1 +6.3
Oklahoma Romney 66.8-33.2 Trump 65.3-28.9 +2.85
Tennessee Romney 59.4-39.0 Trump 60.7-34.7 +5.62

 

Even if these trends continue, it’s going to be several more cycles before Birmingham or Little Rock vote like Durham, or Williamson County, Tennessee, or Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, looks like Fairfax County, Virginia, or even Gwinnett County, Georgia, and during that time, Democrats will have to find ways to stop the bleeding in rural areas and maintain their near-monopoly on the black vote.  Still, the same patterns that gave Democrats an opening in the South Atlantic states are present in other parts of the south, and bear watching for future elections.