Last year’s mid-term elections marked the end of a decades-long transition as white Southerners abandoned the Democratic Party en masse. For a decade or so as this process gained momentum, it looked as though the South might, for the first time ever, be moving toward an open, multi-party political system.
That has not occurred. This transformation has proved to be less of an opening to competitive politics than a long flag-changing ceremony. Southern politics remains as racially-driven and monolithic as ever.
A few samples of precinct-level data from northern cities can provide a helpful contrast. Even in states behind the “Blue Wall,” solidly beyond Republicans’ reach in Presidential elections, multi-party politics remains relatively vibrant. There is no similar example of “ticket-splitting” in the South.
Chicago’s Ward 43 covers the city’s affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood along the North Shore. The ward is overwhelmingly white and Democratic. Republican Bruce Rauner’s 2014 victory in the race for Governor of Illinois demonstrates the willingness of voters in northern states to disregard party affiliation in pursuit of quality leadership. The numbers of Chicago’s 43rd Ward are just one example of this flexibility.
Solidly Democratic Ward 43 gave half their votes to the Republican candidate in the 2014 Governor’s race. Rauner took no position on culture war issues, declared himself pro-choice, and ran a campaign rigorously focused on the fiscal and ethical issues facing state government. He outpolled Republicans farther down the ballot by a stunning margin.
Illinois Republicans nominated social conservative Jim Oberweis for the 2014 Senate race. He drew only 32% in Chicago’s 43rd Ward. Rauner won his race while every other statewide Republican, including Oberweis, lost. Republicans failed to gain a single seat in the State Assembly.
The same pattern of ticket-splitting could be seen in the heavily Republican districts in Chicago’s collar counties. In my DuPage County precinct, Oberwies trailed fellow-Republican Rauner by 13 points, a gap that was pretty consistent across the suburbs.
This kind of ticket-splitting is a tradition in Northern states, where a more open political culture leads to more competitive party politics. Minnesota has given its Electoral votes to a Republican Presidential candidate only one time since the 1920’s. Across the same period more than half of its Governors have been Republicans. Similar patterns are evident in New York and Massachusetts. Since Reagan, California has had three Republican and three Democratic Governors.
Massachusetts in 2014 sent a Democrat to the US Senate in a rout while a Republican won the Governor’s race. Republicans have held the Massachusetts Governors’ office as often as not over the past few decades.
At the state and local level, personalities can be more of a factor and the narrower range of relevant issues gives a minority-party candidate less baggage. Vermont has a US Senator who left the Democratic Party to openly embrace Socialism. A Republican there came within one point of winning the 2014 Governor’s race. Needless to say, that Republican is not close to Ted Cruz on the issues. It also goes without saying that he wouldn’t have been competitive as a Republican in a Senate or Congressional race.
It is tough to find a comparison to the voting patterns in Chicago’s Lincoln Park anywhere in the South, in part because it is difficult to find any genuinely competitive races there. Looking at precincts in Houston or Charlotte or Atlanta you find partisan voting preferences that are inextricably tied to demographics all the way up and down the ballot.
In Houston’s Harris County, Romney won 50% of the vote in 2012. Ted Cruz also won 50%. McCain carried 62% of the vote there in 2008 while Republican Senate candidate John Cornyn carried 62% of the vote. Atlanta’s Fulton County gave 34% of the vote to the GOP’s 2014 Senate candidate and 34% to the GOP candidate for Governor. This pattern of rigid partisan ideological consistency is evident across the South.
Northern states that haven’t voted for a Republican Presidential nominee in a very long time and aren’t likely to do so anytime soon, still consistently elect Republicans to state and local offices. There is no comparison in the South. Very few Northern states are under one party control. All of the Southern states apart from Virginia are controlled by the GOP from top to bottom.
As the solid South has increasingly come to dictate the GOP’s national priorities the White House has slipped out of Republicans’ reach. Scott Walker can squeak out a win in a Governor’s race in Wisconsin, but he would lose the state by a wide margin as a Presidential nominee. Likewise, Chris Christie could not expect to compete in New Jersey. The same ticket-splitting that put these guys in office behind the Blue Wall would doom their Presidential ambitions.
The increasingly solid Blue Wall voting pattern of urban and Northern states in Presidential elections does not reflect a similar Democratic monopoly over state and local politics. Those states support a far more open, complex, and diverse political climate than Mississippi or Georgia. Why Southern party politics tolerates so little ideological diversity is a tough question to answer. It deserves its own post.