Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Michael Barone:
Forget Deep/Old South vs New/Upper South
In the Age of Obama,
it's "The South Atlantic" vs. "The Interior South"

Over at the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog, the free daily’s senior Political Anaylst Michael Barone parses the House roll call vote on the Waxman-Markey climate change bill – aka “cap-and-trade.” It’s a vote worth dissecting as it’s one of the first major roll calls of the Obama Administration where partisan solidarity took a back seat - especially on the Democratic side of the aisle - to economic worries back home.

Per his methods in his authoritative biennial guide, “The Almanac of American Politics,” Barone analyzes the vote geographically, digging into partisan breakdowns in various regions to examine how the vote played out, and to handicap the bill’s prospects in the Senate. (He’s skeptical, if it’s not amended, noting Democratic Senators such as North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, who voiced, and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, who Tweeted(!), their public skepticism of the bill’s potential burdensome economic impact on their constituents’ wallets.)

Barone still assigns regional monikers that bear a sort of charm redolent of an earlier era of political science: “The Germano-Scandinavian Midwest (IA, MN, WI).” Others are more contemporarily shrewd.

Barone updates the traditional “Deep South” vs. “Upper South” or “Old South” vs. “New South” dichotomies. In 2009, the Obama Era, Barone cleaves the coastal “South Atlantic (FL, GA, NC, SC, VA)” from the vast “Interior South,” limning a wide arc through what’s left of the Section across states of seemingly dissonant political traditions: from Appalachian West Virginia, through once decidedly “Upper South” Tennessee and Kentucky, snapping up the old Wallace/Thurmond redoubt and segregationist strongholds of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, onto western-tinged Oklahoma and Texas.

Roughly, Barone is drawing a distinction between the growing, suburbanizing states that Obama won, but George W. Bush took in 2000 (FL, VA, NC) and the rest of the South where population and incomes remains stagnant, and Democrats still struggle for traction.

Of course, these are only blunt designations. Barone’s “Interior South” includes bastions of educated Southern natives sprinkled with highly educated transplants, trend-setting metropolises like Austin, TX; Nashville, TN; and Lexington, KY that may one day overwhelm the Wacos and Memphises and Paducahs that keep those states conformably combined within the same category as West Virginia, Oklahoma and Mississippi.

And his “South Atlantic” includes South Carolina, once the most “Solid” of the “Solid South” in its Democratic partisan fervor and electoral expression of Southern Sectional defiance. (SC Dem presidential vote performance ranged from 1896-1944 spanned from 85%-98%.) But, the once-Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond impressed a durable Republican tradition when he switched parties back in the ‘60’s. The urbane Gov. Mark Sanford hails from a resort-dotted coast that’s the growing part of the state that gave an openly lesbian – if business friendly - Democratic Congressional candidate a respectable vote total in 2008. Sanford’s Coastal Carolina taste in genteel plantations and “exotic” Argentine paramours contrasts with the Up Country, South Carolina’s “Interior South,” where Mike Huckabee’s blend of social conservatism and economic populism played better.

Georgia is a sort of awkward fit in this column, too; something of a lagging indicator. Atlanta’s ‘burbs are driving demographic shifts at play in Virginia and North Carolina, but the Peach State’s Republicanism bloomed later than that of other Southern states, possibly retarded by Favorite Son Jimmy Carter’s legacy. Nevertheless, Obama scored the highest raw Dem vote total ever here, and snared the biggest share of Georgia’s popular vote since “that peanut farmer” bested Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

But, Barone needed to hammer these circled squares into contiguous clusters. And, I-95 is useful as a spine that conjoins “The South Atlantic.” If trends in Tennessee and Texas continue apace, and Georgia’s and South Carolina’s still lollygag along, Barone may have to engage in his own creative Reapportionment.

But, for 2009, Barone’s updated distinction between “The South Atlantic” and “The Interior South” offers a more-than-serviceable thumbnail snapshot of an ever-changing Southern political landscape.

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