OXFORD, Miss. — Late on election night, a small melee erupted at the University of Mississippi here when a group of white students frustrated by the reelection of President Obama marched outside and began shouting racial slurs at African American students. Several hundred people gathered to watch as two white students were arrested.
“Mississippi still has a lot of work to do in race relations,” said Kimbrely Dandridge, an African American Obama supporter and president of the student body.
Yet even as that incident evoked ugly memories of an earlier era, Election Day in the South told a newer and more surprising story: The nation’s first black president finished more strongly in the region than any other Democratic nominee in three decades, underscoring a fresh challenge for Republicans who rely on Southern whites as their base of national support.
Obama won Virginia
and narrowly missed victory in North Carolina. But he also polled as well in Georgia as any Democrat since Jimmy Carter, grabbed 44 percent of the vote in deep-red South Carolina and just under that in Mississippi — despite doing no substantive campaigning in any of those states.
Much of the post-election analysis has focused on the demographic crisis facing Republicans
among Hispanic voters, particularly in Texas. But the results across other parts of the South, where Latinos remain a single-digit minority, point to separate trends among blacks and whites that may also have big implications for the GOP’s future.
The pattern is markedly different in the five states that hug the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Florida, which together hold82 of the South’s 160 electoral votes. A combination of a growing black population, urban expansion, oceanfront development and in-migration from other regions has opened up increasing opportunities for Democrats in those states.
“Georgia is an achievable target for Democrats in 2016,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a frequent Obama surrogate during the campaign. “What you’re going to see is the Democratic Party making a drive through the geography from Virginia to Florida.”
That will be easier said than done — particularly when the Democratic nominee is not Obama — but powerful forces in the region are clearly eroding GOP dominance. The trends pose difficulties for a Republican Party that has been shifting toward Dixie since the “Southern strategy” of the Nixon era, which sought to encourage white flight from the Democratic Party.
In every Southern state except Louisiana, the population of African Americans grew substantially faster than that of whites over the past decade. The growth is fueled by black retirees from the north and rising numbers of young, well-educated blacks in prosperous cities such as Atlanta, Norfolk, Charlotte and Charleston, S.C.
The influx also includes fast-growing, but smaller, Hispanic populations and an infusion of less-conservative outsiders attracted to popular coastal areas. Together, the shifts are making the electoral landscape from Virginia and the Carolinas look increasingly like the swing state of Florida.
Obama’s 2012 numbers in the Southeastern coastal states outperformed every Democratic nominee since Carter and significantly narrowed past gaps between Democratic and Republican candidates. The lone possible exception is Georgia in 1996, which gave Arkansas native Bill Clinton 45.8 percent in 1996; Obama fell 0.4 percent short of that mark in tentative 2012 results, but ongoing revisions could close the gap.