State Watch

How the New South became a swing region

Blue America is invading the New South, where changing demographics and the slow death of the tobacco and textile industries are turning a once solid-red region along the mid- and south-Atlantic coastline into competitive battlegrounds.

Virginia has voted Democratic in the last three presidential contests after voting Republican in 10 straight elections. 

Former President Obama won North Carolina by three-tenths of a percent in 2008 and lost by just two points in 2012. President Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton there by just over three points in 2016, after the two sides and their supporters spent more than $44 million on television advertising across the state.

{mosads}Democrats hope, and Republicans fear, that Georgia could be the next New South swing state. More than half of Georgia’s population over the age of 18 was born in another state or another country. And those new arrivals are mostly moving to Atlanta.

South Carolina remains solidly Republican. But the long-term trends in the other three states show promise for Democrats, who are pulling more and more votes out of the region’s growing metropolitan hubs. 

Republicans are worried that their growing deficits in major cities will expand the electoral college battlefield. 

This is the 17th story in The Hill’s Changing America series, in which we examine the economic and demographic trends that are shaping American politics today. 

Both an evolving economy and the rise of new demographic groups are conspiring to change the politics of the New South.

In Danville, Va., the population is down to 42,000 after peaking at 53,000 in 1990.

The stately Victorian and Edwardian mansions lining Millionaire’s Row stand as evidence of a bygone era built in the years after the Civil War by tobacco and textile barons.

Both industries today are under assault, as jobs either disappear or move overseas. 

“Our biggest industries were cotton mills. They employed, at their peak, over 10,000 people,” said John Gilstrap, Danville’s mayor. “They didn’t even require a high school degree.”

Collectively, the four New South states produce almost two-thirds of the nation’s tobacco crop. But since peaking at 1.9 billion pounds in 1978, the amount of tobacco the nation produces, and the number of farms producing it, have plummeted.

Forty years ago, there were more than 60,000 tobacco farms in the New South, which produced 1.2 billion pounds of crops. In 2012, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, there were just 2,478 tobacco farms in those four states, producing 492 million pounds.

The decline is even more pronounced in the textile industry: Nationally, employment in textile mills has fallen from about half a million in 1990 to just 109,000 workers today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Almost 60 percent of the textile jobs in America are located in the four New South states — but the number of jobs in those states has fallen by almost half just since 2005, according to the Census Bureau.

As a consequence, rural counties in the New South are shrinking. Forty-one percent of North Carolina towns lost population between 2010 and 2016, according to the UNC Carolina Population Center. 

Eighteen of Virginia’s 40 state Senate districts have either grown substantially more slowly than the rest of the Commonwealth or lost population since November 2011, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan think tank. The vast majority of those districts that have lost population or grown slowly — including the district where Danville sits — are in the southern and southwestern corners of the state. 

Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia have experienced some of the most robust long-term population growth in the nation, but the core of the New South’s economy has shifted entirely, away from rural counties that once clothed the world and toward booming metropolitan areas that serve as global hubs of modern finance, education and information.

North Carolina’s Research Triangle has nearly doubled in size in recent decades. Charlotte has become one of the world’s most important financial centers.

“The urban influence in North Carolina is striking,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. “Rural counties are now less than a quarter of the state’s voter pool, and likely to continue to shrink.”

The state’s largest vote center, the Research Triangle that includes Wake, Durham and Orange Counties, gave Democrat Al Gore 52.2 percent of the two-party vote in the 2000 presidential race. Republican George W. Bush actually won Mecklenburg County, home of Charlotte, by 7,000 votes.

Sixteen years later, Clinton took two out of every three votes in the Research Triangle, and 62 percent of the vote in Mecklenburg. Across the state, the six largest counties in North Carolina all shifted more than 10 percentage points toward Democrats between 2012 and 2016.

In Virginia, Richmond is growing and the suburbs around Washington, D.C., make up a massively disproportionate share of the Commonwealth’s economic and political activity.

In 2000, the four counties and five independent cities that make up Northern Virginia accounted for a little over a quarter of the statewide vote; Gore beat Bush in those counties and cities, which made up a little over a quarter of the statewide vote, by a combined margin of just 1.4 percentage points while losing the state. Sixteen years later, Northern Virginia accounted for 39.6 percent of the statewide two-party vote, and Hillary Clinton won the region by a 68 percent to 32 percent margin.

Democratic success in the booming Washington suburbs was enough to offset the party’s losses in more traditionally conservative — but more traditionally Democratic — areas in the Appalachians. Bush won 57 percent of the vote in Southwestern Virginia in 2000. Trump won more than 68 percent in those counties in 2016.

The New South’s metropolitan hubs have attracted a new generation of workers from across the country, who have brought more liberal attitudes to the South. 

“Atlanta is basically the New York City of the South,” said Mathew Hauer, director of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government’s Applied Demography program at the University of Georgia.

Atlanta is home to seven Fortune 100 companies and has more than doubled in size since 1980, becoming the ninth-largest metro area in America.

Hauer said that the state will become majority-minority sometime in the 2030s. More than half the state’s population over the age of 18 was born in another state or another country. And those new arrivals are mostly moving to Atlanta.

And those arrivals are making Atlanta bluer: The five counties that make up the core of the metro area — Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb and Clayton — favored Gore by a five-point margin in 2000. In 2016, Clinton won those counties by a two-to-one margin. Democrats nearly stole an historically Republican House district in a special election to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price this year, in what would have amounted to a major upset. 

But even the new arrivals are not enough to make Atlanta the overwhelmingly dominant player in Georgia politics yet. The Atlanta metro area accounted for 37 percent of the two-party vote in 2000, about the same as it did in 2016.

Virginia, however, has increasingly become a blue state — and voting patterns could be a sign of things to come in North Carolina and Georgia.

Republicans have won the governorship just once since the turn of the century, and polls show the current gubernatorial contest tilting toward Democratic nominee Ralph Northam. Democrats have held both of the Commonwealth’s U.S. Senate seats since after the 2008 elections, when Sen. Mark Warner (D) replaced retiring Sen. John Warner (R).

Like Virginia, North Carolina has grown more competitive as major metro areas turn blue. 

But that change isn’t happening as fast as it has in Virginia. In 2000, the Research Triangle and Mecklenburg accounted for 23 percent of the state’s votes. In 2016, they accounted for 26 percent, a much smaller increase in influence than the Northern Virginia counties enjoyed.

Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who once represented a Northern Virginia district in the House, offered a nifty phrase in describing the demographic and cultural sea change taking placed in his state and region. 

He said his party had “moved from the country club to the country.” 

Davis’s old district is now represented by Rep. Gerry Connolly — a Democrat. 

Tags Al Gore Barack Obama Changing America Georgia Gerry Connolly Hillary Clinton Mark Warner North Carolina Obama South Carolina Tom Price Trump Virginia
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