For the last generation the South has been the base on which Republican majorities rest. Had Southern states not given near unanimous support to Republican presidential candidates, neither Donald Trump nor George W. Bush would have called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home. If Southern congressional delegations were not overwhelmingly Republican, Democrats would have rarely lost control of either house of Congress. Despite GOP dominance, Southern Democrats have become increasingly hopeful for a rebirth.
Thus far only Virginia has returned to the Democratic fold.
For Democrats to win in states having substantial black populations, they must meet the targets of a 30–30 election. Democrat Michelle Nunn’s 2014 U.S. Senate campaign had this objective. Her consultant told her that to attain the seat her father held for four terms she would need 30% of the white vote and for African-Americans to cast 30% of all votes.
If African-Americans account for 30% of the voters, they constitute about the same share of the electorate as of the adult population— that means that they are turning out at the same rate as whites. Since 2008, blacks have cast about 30% of the vote in Georgia except in 2016 when their vote share slumped to 27.6% as the black turnout rate trailed white participation by 12 percentage points.
The bigger challenge for Democratic candidates is getting 30% white support. Despite black turnout approximating 30%, Nunn lost to David Perdue when she managed only 23% of the white vote. Democrat Stacey Abrams lost the governorship by 55,000 votes in 2018 with blacks casting 29 – 31% of the total when she attracted just 24% support from whites.
Confirmation that hitting the 30–30 target pays dividends to Democrats came late in 2017 when Democrat Doug Jones pulled off a major upset as he beat Roy Moore to secure Jeff Sessions’ U.S. Senate seat. The exit poll showed Jones with 30% of the white vote and African Americans casting 30% of the vote.
Recent Georgia polls show about 30% of whites favoring Joe Biden. The poll done for the Atlanta Journal Constitution by UGA’s School of Public and International Affairs, found 29.4% of whites backing the former vice president. A New York Times/Siena College poll had the president with two-thirds of the white vote. A Quinnipiac poll also showed Trump with 67% of the vote and Biden had 31%.
In one of Georgia’s Senate contests, recent polls have GOP U.S. Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff running neck and neck. The outcome of this contest also rests on whether the Democratic challenger can meet the 30–30 challenge.
The 30–30 threshold also applies in several other heated contests this year. For Jones in Alabama to survive, he will need to replicate his 2017 performance. South Carolina does not appear to be in play at the presidential level, but Jamie Harrison is mounting a credible challenge to GOP U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. If Harrison has a 30– 0 performance, South Carolina will have two African American senators.
North Carolina’s Electoral College votes and its U.S. Senate seat are both toss-ups. The Tar Heel state has a smaller black population than Georgia, South Carolina or Alabama. So for Democrats to win either North Carolina contest, they will have to get larger shares of the white vote than in the other southeastern states.
If Republicans can maintain the levels of white support that have been common for the last generation, they will continue winning in the Southeast.
Charles S. Bullock, III, is the Distinguished University Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. He is co-author and co-editor of The New Politics of the Old South now in its 6th edition.