“We have just lost the South for a generation.”
That was reportedly what President Lyndon Johnson said to an aide after he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. There is no actual evidence that Johnson actually uttered the phrase but the words have lived on in political lore. Regardless, electoral history has proven the statement true as a large majority of the South has been firmly in Republican hands since the Reagan era.
But, thanks in part to Donald Trump, that might be about to change.
“Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia are at various stages of becoming more favorable terrain for Democrats, thanks to the migration of well-educated minorities and whites to the metropolitan south,” David Wasserman, political analyst at the Cook Political report, told CBS News. “Virginia has led the way, with North Carolina still purple and Georgia still a shade redder. Over the long term, the trend line is more favorable to Democrats in these states than in Missouri, Indiana, and potentially even Ohio.”
Over the last ten years the political landscape in these southern states has shifted in varying degrees and attracted groups that historically have supported Democrats. Polling now suggests all three are in play for Hillary Clinton this fall.
“It’s possible Trump could accelerate an ongoing trend among metropolitan and suburban whites in the South away from the Republican Party,” Wasserman noted. “The last couple of cycles, Democrats have cut into traditional Republican advantages in suburbs of Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Richmond and the Washington, D.C. area, putting all three states in play.”
But some argue Trump’s candidacy could be an aberration that is artificially expanding the traditional electoral college map. For example, Michael Barone, a fellow at the conservative think tank AEI, heeds caution in applying what we are seeing today to future cycles or candidates.
“How this will play out is unclear, and it certainly isn’t clear that Trump will set a template that subsequent Republican nominees will feel obliged to match,” Barone said. “Nor is it clear what comes next for Democrats after Hillary Clinton.”
As Wasserman suggested, Trump’s unique candidacy could be exacerbating this shift -- and that can have real down ballot consequences for Republicans.
Virginia may no longer be a battleground this cycle. With just over 70 days left in the race, Clinton now leads Trump in the two latest state polls, from Quinnipiac and the Washington Post, by over ten points. Virginia voted for Obama in 2008 and again in 2012, but he was the first Democrat to win the Old Dominion state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
In Georgia, a state that Mitt Romney won in 2012 by 8 points over Barack Obama, polling currently shows Trump up just 4 points, according to the latest CBS News Battleground Tracker. That 4 point margin is within the margin of error and, sensing an opportunity, the Clinton campaign has reportedly sent “an initial six-figure sum” to Georgia to hire staff and increase organizing.
North Carolina was always going to be considered a battleground state no matter who the nominees were, but Clinton has opened a significant lead there as well. The latest NBC/Marist poll shows Clinton up 9 points there over Trump, although a CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday indicates the race is much closer, with Clinton leading by just 1 point.
In 2008, Obama won North Carolina over John McCain by just under 15,000 votes – the first time the state had voted for a Democrat for president since 1976. In 2012, Romney took North Carolina back, winning the Tar Heel state by 3 points.
This back-and-forth over the past two cycles made North Carolina an early target for the Clinton campaign, putting staff on the ground and actively organizing there following the April primary. The campaign has treated North Carolina as a battleground state from the beginning, recognizing it is one of their best chances to expand the map in 2016.
This aggressive strategy from the Clinton campaign and lack of traditional infrastructure in the battleground states from the Trump camp is starting to show its impact in down ballot races across the country.
North Carolina provides a perfect example, asis now a tight race with Democratic challenger Deborah Ross, a former leader of the state’s ACLU. The same poll that showed Clinton up 9 points in the Tar Heel state shows Ross leading Burr by 2 points, while last month she trailed him by 7.
As promising as these southern states look in August, Hillary Clinton’s camp has warned her supporters this week to not let complacency set in. “Voters of all stripes are rejecting Donald Trump’s dangerous candidacy which has opened up more opportunities for us in states that have typically favored Republicans,” Clinton spokesperson Lily Adams told CBS News, “These states won’t turn blue overnight but we’re organizing and talking with more voters every day to build support for Hillary Clinton.”
As reported by the Carolina Population Center, over half a million eligible voters (557,000) have lived in North Carolina for less than five years – that accounts for 8 percent of the just over 7 million voters statewide. Of those, 66 percent are between 18-44 years old and are more likely to be single/never married, have a bachelor’s degree, and be a minority when compared to the those who have live in the state longer. Those are all groups that Democrats historically have done well with and continue to target.
According to Rebecca Tippett, Director of Carolina Demography at Carolina Population Center at UNC, North Carolina’s population is increasingly living in urban areas, a positive sign for Democrats who tend to do better in cities.
“Nearly half of the state’s growth since 2010 has occurred in the two largest urban counties: Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) and Wake County (Raleigh),” Tippett said. “At the same time, 48 of the state’s 100 counties have lost population since 2010. These counties are predominantly rural or home to smaller towns and cities.”
This shift to urban centers in North Carolina is similar to what is happening in Virginia and Georgia when you account for overall population aging and the “emergence of significant Hispanic and Asian populations” Trippett explained.
However, one positive sign for Republicans in North Carolina leading into November is that they have cut into Democrat’s voter registration advantage across the state since June of last year.
The simple fact remains that it is still only August. With over 80 days left, 2016 has already defied most expectations and precedents set by previous elections. As this race trudges into the fall, even more voter engagement, unpredictable world events and the highly anticipated debates provide ample opportunity for anything to happen.
It’s a reality that the Clinton campaign seems to be well aware of.
“We feel good about the support Hillary Clinton is receiving but know we have a long way until Election Day.” Adams said.