The purple South: could this be the key for Biden?
Illustration Credit: India Ross

With the 2020 US Presidential election less than four months away, incumbent Donald Trump is trailing in most opinion polls. The risk of overconfidence as was seen in 2016, when Hillary Clinton also led national polls by a convincing margin, means that many on Team Biden chose to remain hesitant. The battleground states where Clinton lost so narrowly in 2016 will once again be crucial, but it is not the polls from the traditional background states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that have excited Biden’s campaign. The resurgence of the Democrats across the Sunbelt region, as well as swathes of South-Eastern America, is a sight to behold, given the near extinction of the party in these regions under the last Obama administration. What is spurring this Democratic revival, in a region once written off as safe Republican territory?

In order to look at how the Democrats have suddenly unleashed a groundswell of support in Southern states, a good starting point is the suburbs of metropolitan areas such as Atlanta and Houston. For decades, the assumed political thinking was that these areas had Democratic voters concentrated in inner-city districts, whereas the suburbs were dominated by the Republican party, due to a platform of limited government and low tax that proved popular with the middle classes. Yet over the course of the 2010s, this established notion was flipped on its head completely.

The party took the seat from the Republicans as part of a backlash to Trump’s populist movement

Nowhere was this trend more illustrated in the suburbs of large Southern cities. The once blood-red suburbs of metros such as Phoenix and Dallas began to swing away from the Republicans. One of the best examples to demonstrate the freefall of the Republican vote in the suburbs is Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, located in the wealthy suburbs of Atlanta. Once blood-red, this congressional district was notable for being the seat of controversial former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The Democrats had not held the seat since 1976, and it was widely considered a Republican stronghold. Yet despite the seat going 60-40 for Romney in 2012, by 2016 the Republican majority in the seat had been cut to just 1.5 percentage points. In the 2018 midterms elections, this once safe seat fell back into the hands of the Democratic party. The party took the seat from the Republicans as part of a backlash to Trump’s populist movement, wherein many suburban Congressional seats that were once safely Republican fell into Democratic hands. 

It is estimated that 75% of all seats gained by the Democrats in 2018 were suburban districts. This reflected the continuation of the Romney-Clinton phenomenon, where suburban districts across the US that voted strongly for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In 2018, all but one of these districts went from electing Republican representatives to Democrats.

A major factor in the collapse of Republican support within the suburbs has been the transformation of the Republican party itself. By the end of the Bush years, the Republican party had built an image of traditional conservatism. This was uprooted by the Tea Party movement, spurred on not only by a pliant conservative media ecosystem , but also the growth of explosive new fringe media such as InfoWars and the Blaze. These wildly controversial outlets saw widespread readership amongst the Republican base, due to their promotion of popular anti-Obama conspiracies and fringe libertarianism. This insurgency led to the Republicans shedding their prior image, transforming into a nativist, populist party which was adopting increasingly extreme rhetoric. The policy was incredibly successful in terms of winning over disaffected Democratic voters

This is highlighted by the success of the Republican party in appealing to white voters without college degrees. This voting bloc, which once voted for Democrats in droves, swung sharply to the Republicans, from just 28% in 1992 to 66% by 2016. It was this swing that gave Donald Trump his shock victories among the so-called “blue wall states” of Wisconsin and Michigan. Yet while the strategy of adopting a nativist platform worked well in economically depressed working-class regions, it had the equal effect of isolating suburban Republicans from the party, who balked at the nativist rhetoric. National Republican messaging, which was reliant on xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric, simply did not resonate in suburban districts, where pollsters identified “middle-class economic anxiety” to be more of a concern than hot button issues such as immigration.

 The warning signs were visible from 2012. The Republicans swept post-industrial Democratic-leaning states such as Ohio. But at a local level, within the Sunbelt region in states such as Arizona, the Republicans had begun to face competitive races in seats where they had once romped home to re-election. Yet Democratic attempts to make inroads off the back of the Tea Party wave were hindered by the party’s poor national image and general unpopularity. It would take an even more drastic rightward shift by the Republicans, for the Democrats to have any success in winning back the South.  

while it attracted voters who had traditionally not voted Republican before, it alienated long term Republican voters

The election of Donald Trump  therefore proved to be the titular moment for the Democratic party. While the Republican party swung sharply right to the 2010s, it was the Republican primary of 2016 that made clear the extent of the rightward shift. In 2006, Republican George W Bush failed to introduce immigration reform in order to tackle illegal Southern border crossings. By 2016, Donald Trump had won the nomination in a landslide on his signature promise of building a wall across that same border. The openly nativist Republican rhetoric was polarizing, and while it attracted voters who had traditionally not voted Republican before, it alienated long term Republican voters. This was demonstrated by many lifelong senior Republicans abandoning the party, including Bush Sr and Bush Jr. In the 2018 midterms, national exit poll data showed Democrats with an 8 point poll lead over the Republicans in suburban areas, cementing their newfound competitiveness in an area that was once staunchly Republican.

The sudden competitiveness of suburban seats cannot be attributed to an exodus of traditional Republicans alone. At the turn of the century, the suburbs of most large metropolitan cities were overwhelmingly white, and Republican. An influx in recent years of non-white voters from inner ring districts of cities, as well as from other states, has resulted in the diversification of the suburbs. Given the Democrats’ prescient advantage among communities of colour, it seems sensible to assume that the increasing diversification of the suburbs would help to make the regions competitive. 

Throughout the early 2010s, the ‘Red-firewall’ of outer suburbs helped Republicans stay competitive in large cities: places such as Charlotte, Indianapolis and Houston. Houston’s diversifying suburbs are a good example of how demographic change has made the Democrats a bigger threat. Fort Bend County, in the Southwestern suburbs of Houston, has seen a steady influx of Asian and Hispanic immigrants which has resulted in the county becoming the 4th most diverse in the US. Between the 2000 and 2010 Census, the White population of the county fell from 56.9% to 36.2%. By 2016, it voted Democratic for the first time since LBJ’s landslide in 1964. The diversification of the suburbs has made suburban metro areas competitive for the first time in decades.

The Democratic party had once monopolized the South

There has recently been a renewed focus from the political establishment on the states located in America’s Sunbelt region. The Democratic party had once monopolized the South on account of its strength in the Deep South states such as Arkansas and Alabama, relying on turning out white voters by implementing segregationist legislation that enflamed racial tensions. But now it is the diversification of Sunbelt states such as Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia and Texas,that is seen by current Democrats as a potential boon to their chances of reclaiming the White House in 2020.

In recent years the traditional states considered to be swing states have become less elastic. Virginia and Colorado have become solidly Democratic, while states such as Ohio have swung strongly toward the Republicans. As a result a new class of battleground states has emerged. A population boom in the Sunbelt region has led to rapid demographic change within the states that makeup the region. Between 2010 and 2017, the US population grew by 17.1 million people. Migration to Sunbelt metro areas was responsible for 41% of that growth, with the majority of the growth coming from internal migration. In Texas, the four cities of Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin saw a total increase of 2.7 million people, exacerbating  the significant demographic change within Sunbelt states. In 2020, the main Southern battleground states will be Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas.

Arizona’s attractive location, situated next to California and also on the Southern border, combined with a pleasant climate, has made it a hotspot for internal migration. The state has seen an influx of Californians priced out of California’s expensive real estate market, as well as a rise in Hispanic immigrants from across the Mexican border. The majority of these immigrants settled in Maricopa County, the state’s most populous county and home to the state capital of Phoenix. Maricopa County was once reliably Republican, but the change in demographics has led to favourable results for Democrats. The country, which has not voted for a Democrat at the presidential level since 1948, saw the Republican margin of victory slashed to 2.9% in 2016. Given the county is Arizona’s most populous, the increasingly purple nature of the county has played a significant role in transforming Arizona into a presidential battleground state. In 2018, the state elected its first Democratic Senator for 25 years, further increasing Democratic hopes of winning the state in 2020. They have a margin of 3.5% to overturn, but hopes of capturing the state for only the second time since 1948 are high within the Biden campaign.

The Democrats are determined to make these states 2020 battlegrounds

The large states of Georgia and Texas are slowly swinging toward the Democratic party, due to demographic changes. Yet these states are unlikely to flip in 2020. When compared with Arizona and North Carolina both states have a sizeable rural Republican voting section, which makes it harder for Democrats to flip the state. This was reflected in the fact that, while state-wide Democratic campaigns for Governor and Senator in Georgia and Texas in 2018 were some of the most competitive campaigns seen in decades, the states have not quite achieved the level of demographic change which would suggest a flip to the Democrats in 2020. Yet the electoral prize of having these sizeable states means that the Democrats are determined to make these states 2020 battlegrounds to prepare for future campaigns.

It is yet to be seen whether Biden will benefit from the Souths shift towards the left. What is clear is that this is an opportunity that the Democrats are fully prepared to capitalise on, in 2020 and beyond.