Decision 2018: “Red South” vs “Bluer South”

Three more states – all in the South – held primaries last night: Arkansas, Georgia, and Kentucky. Since there were no statewide races in Kentucky (only partisan Congressional primaries), JMC will focus the rest of the discussion on what went on in Arkansas and Georgia.

Ever since Reconstruction, the South has been thought of as a monolithic entity. While that generally is true today, substantial in migration both from the Midwest/Northeast and from abroad has begun to change the “political personality” of the Southern landscape. Those changes, however, have not occurred equally throughout the old Confederacy and neighboring Border States, which is why the dichotomy between the “Old South” and “new South” is an important context to understand what happened with last night’s primary elections, because the voting behavior of “Old South” and “New South” states will have a direct impact on the midterm elections in November.


Atlanta, Georgia early on decided to establish a distinct identity as “the city too busy to hate” in the 1960s, and it immediately became the epicenter of corporate in-migration from the Midwest and Northeast. Those voters initially preferred Republican candidates and were heavily outvoted by rural “Solid South” voters in the rest of the state. As time went on, issue stances from the Clinton and Obama administrations moved rural Georgia to the Republican column. However, since politics is a series of reactions’ causing equal and opposite reactions elsewhere, those northern/Midwestern migrants who brought Republican politics to the area moved more into the Democratic column, while an additional wave of black (from California), Hispanic, and Asian immigration over the past 20 years brought enough new Democratic voters to the area that Barack Obama was actually competitive here during his two Presidential races. Hillary Clinton further closed the gap with a narrow 5 point loss to Donald Trump due to gains in once heavily Republican suburbs of Atlanta.

These steady political changes were apparent in last night’s election results. In the 2010 primaries, 63% of Georgians chose a Republican ballot. That figure increased to 65% Republican in 2014. Last night, the Republican percentage plunged to 52% (eerily similar to the percentages John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump received in the state), as Republican turnout was up a half a percent relative to 2014, while Democratic turnout surged 68%.

Republicans should be particularly concerned about the primary election results from Cobb and Gwinnett Counties – upper middle income Republican suburbs that flipped to Hillary Clinton two years ago and which have two Republican Congressional incumbents in (now) marginal seats: in those two suburban counties, 51% chose a Democratic ballot.


Arkansas was a state where Democrats held complete control, and even as Republicans made gains elsewhere across the South, Arkansas stayed Democratic in Presidential races until 1996. Even in 2004, John Kerry received 45% of the vote there – the highest percentage of any rural Southern state. Since then, the issue stances of Barack Obama have moved the state sharply to the right, and in 2016 Hillary Clinton could only get 34% of the vote in a state her husband carried twice with absolute majorities in the 1990s.

And while Georgia has seen a political transformation in recent years, in migration to Arkansas has been more limited and almost entirely limited to the northwest corner of the state, where the presence of Wal-Mart has had a multiplier effect economically.

So while Georgia saw a Democratic surge last night, Arkansas moved further to the right. A state that saw 70% of its primary voters choose a Democratic ballot in 2010 voted 54% Republican in the 2014 primaries and 66% Republican last night, with Republican turnout (with 98% of the vote in) increasing 13%, while Democratic turnout plunged 31%. In general, this was good news for Republicans, although one of the Congressional districts they hold in the politically competitive Little Rock area saw a Democratic surge, and 55% chose a Republican ballot – similar to the 52-42% margin by which Trump carried the district in 2016.

2018 midterms

Thus far, 13 states have held primaries. The next set of primaries will come on “Super Tuesday” on June 5 (eight states are holding primaries), followed by a series of 10 more primaries on June 12 and 26.

Overall, in the states that have held contested primaries on both sides of the partisan aisle (there are nine of them), 63% voted in the Republican primary in 2014, while 52% have thus far this year. Or to put it another way, Democratic turnout has increased 72%, while Republican turnout has increased 9% relative to 2014. This is actual partisan voter turnout data that should be considered when evaluating the political temperature of the 2018 midterm elections.

Congressional filing is also steadily progressing to its conclusion (filing for fall races in Louisiana is July 18-20), as 36 states have concluded its Congressional qualifying. 99% of 216 Republicans have Democratic opposition, while 81% of 160 Democratic held seats have Republican opposition.