Beneath the surface, the South is starting to look a lot less red

Most Southern states will likely choose Donald Trump on Election Day, but the Republican advantage has eroded significantly. 

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP/File
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich hosts a town hall in supprt of Donald Trump at Kennesaw State University in Georgia's Cobb County in September.

Paul Ruiz just traveled 4,500 miles from his Hawaii home to resettle in tiny Vinings, Ga., one of the wealthiest corners of Cobb County.

Having been a Georgian for just one week, he’s only vaguely aware that Cobb County has long been the South’s version of California’s Orange County – a fount of conservative thinking and thinkers. It was the home base of conservative icons Rep. Bob Barr and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. It has been a Republican stronghold for decades.

But like many newcomers, Mr. Ruiz is an independent who votes “character over party.” And he and his wife, also an independent, will be voting for Hillary Clinton. It hasn’t been an easy decision, but, he says, “being Hispanic, what Trump has been saying, well, it’s just hurtful.”

Welcome to the emerging Purple South.

This presidential election, something new and surprising has been burbling under the surface. Some polls show Texas being closer than Pennsylvania. Virginia has become a rock-solid Clinton state. North Carolina could follow. And thanks to voters like Ruiz, Georgia – remarkably – could be in play.

Broad national polls disguise the fact that Mrs. Clinton is making significant headway in the South. Donald Trump will still likely win most of the region, but the margins are much closer than they were in 2012, when Mitt Romney swept the South easily. Compared with 2012, the South “has swung toward Democrats by a net of 6 points,” writes Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight data journalism site.

In that way, Mr. Trump’s campaign has offered a glimpse of the future. As the South becomes more diverse and broadly prosperous, it is becoming less red. Those demographic trends were expected to play out in the years ahead. But this election, which has polarized the election along racial and ethnic lines, has brought them into sharper relief.

The Cobb suburbs “clearly should be a vote that’s persuadable” for Democrats now, which is why Clinton is “using a strategy that is not a base strategy anymore,” says Seth McKee, a political scientist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Clinton strategists are “looking at the trends, moving out, and going places that historically they have no business going to.”

View from Cobb County

Once largely a white, suburban enclave, Cobb County is now an increasingly diverse corner of an expanding city. The percentage of the black population, much of it middle class, rose from 4.5 percent in 1980 to 25 percent in 2010. It’s a place where the Republican revolution was in part built, and it remains a wellspring of GOP donor cash. But Clinton is making inroads.

Neck in neck with Mr. Trump in Georgia, Clinton has begun to focus on conservative suburbs around Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Raleigh, N.C. A Clinton political-action committee just made a $2 million ad buy here in Georgia, which has not voted Democratic in a presidential election since 1992.

In one ad, a narrator admits to having issues with Clinton, but ultimately says she has come around to the Democratic nominee. “I approve this message,” Clinton says at the end.

Clinton’s bold forays underscore polling that shows she is “cutting through” in conservative suburbs, as pollster Ann Selzer told Bloomberg recently. In part, this is disgust with Trump’s comments about women and minorities. But just as important is his dour view of America today. A thriving Cobb County is very open to conservative arguments – but it embodies a sense of optimism.

“There’s a lot of people in America, whatever their level of income, they worked hard to get there and they appreciate having it,” says David Lublin, author of “The Republican South: Democratization and partisan change.” “Yes, they think the country has problems, but they love it and they don’t have this ‘let’s tear it down’ feeling about it. That’s why Trump’s upset-the-apple-cart approach is one that would make you nervous if you’re a college-educated Republican. They have their nice house in the suburbs and Hillary Clinton gives them less worry that that’s all going to disappear.”

Land Rovers and anxious voters

In Vinings, a village with no lack of Land Rovers just across the Chattahoochee River from Atlanta, those words come alive. In interviews here, voters make clear that Trump is not a shoo-in. Die-hard Republican suburbanites are literally wringing their hands over what to do on Election Day.

Isaac Blochard, a Florida native, says he has always voted Republican. Including the March primary, he has voted for Jeb Bush three times.

“I still don’t know what to do,” says Mr. Blochard, a father of three who just moved to Vinings from Destin, Fla. “I’m still mulling over all the pros and cons – and there are many.”

But he hangs his head when reminded about Trump bragging on a hot mic about sexual assault. “I have two young daughters,” he says. “It is unacceptable.”

Questions about Clinton’s long and at times checkered political history are a big part of Trump’s appeal for many Americans, including here in Vinings. But for Blochard, the election may ultimately come down to details about education and foreign policy rather than defamation lawsuits and the weight gain of beauty contestants.

In his early 30s, Blochard is hoping that his health care startup takes off. He knows that, with the economy still uncertain for many, he is walking a fine line between paying rent in nearby Kennesaw, Ga., and a mortgage on his unsold house in Florida.

“We love it here, but I still can’t quite see the future,” he says.

Still red, but changing

To be sure, Georgia is a long way from returning to a one-party state of Democrats. But Trump’s campaign is revealing the emerging political fault lines.

In the primaries, Trump did best in rural south Georgia, below the so-called “gnat line,” and worst in the Atlanta “donut” – the suburbs, including Cobb County corners like Cumberland District, which alone has 24 million square feet of office space.

“Cobb County from the Newt Gingrich era has been the stereotypical ultra-Republican county, but like inner suburbs all around the country it’s become much more diverse,” says Mr. Lublin, also a public affairs professor at American University in Washington. “So, we’re seeing a shift, but the question is whether it’s a sustainable shift [for Democrats] or do people revert to normal voting behavior if they get a more normal candidate?”

Clinton’s gambit is an attempt to take advantage of that shift and perhaps cement it as a potential path toward expanding the party’s base. Under President Obama, Democrats have focused on building a coalition of minority voters, young voters, and women. The Georgia strategy is about reaching out to Americans who may be skeptical about taxes and how to deal with climate change, but who also demand stellar schools.

In other words, Cobb County is a place where sophistication and details matter. There are olive-oil shops and pour-over coffee joints. Dozens of aviation firms beckon those with education and expertise.

“This feels like a place full of potential,” Ruiz says. “Right now, I’m very happy to be here.”

Seeking sophistication

The changing demographics of Georgia are largely reflected in Cobb County, says Keith Gaddie, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma in Norman and co-author of “Politics in America.” He says the state is roughly 30 percent African-American, 30 percent white with college degrees, 30 percent whites without college degrees, and 10 percent everybody else. And right now, “Clinton has some electoral advantage with three of the four slices of that pie,” he says.

In that light, Cobb County shows how elections nationwide are playing out.

“In one dimension, that means it’s about urban spaces, suburban spaces, and rural spaces,” says Professor Gaddie.  

“The second dimension is: Is an area growing or shrinking?” he adds. “All up and down the Atlantic coast it’s growing and booming and becoming more diverse, urban, and sophisticated. Cobb County today is more urbane, for example, than Atlanta was 40 years ago…. Frankly, these people [in Cobb County], I think they like their lives a little more sophisticated than a Vegas show.”

At least for now, Monique Beedles represents an emerging Cobb County – black, independent, a newcomer, and working her way up in the world. The restaurant worker and Texas native, too, says she’ll vote for Clinton, largely because it is the former secretary of State, not the New York real estate mogul, who more naturally reflects the current mood of Cobb County.

“The climate has changed, and I’m not talking about the weather.” 

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