Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Southern Path to the White House

by Charles S. Bullock, III

In media reviews of the prospects for a change in White House occupancy, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin occupy center stage.  Had Donald Trump not knocked these states out of the Blue Wall, he would be firing reality show contestants rather than cabinet members.  Trump won the three states by a combined total of less than show up in most SEC stadiums for football games in non-COVID years.  If Trump loses these states in 2020, it is unlikely that he will win reelection and, accordingly, Trump and his surrogates are campaigning there. 
Joe Biden and his team have also visited the states along this Northern Path to the White House.  There is, however, another path to the presidency. The Southern Path goes through Florida, North Carolina and Georgia.  In three of the six most recent presidential elections, Florida voted Democratic.  (Many Democrats contend that it should be four of six since they believe that Al Gore was robbed in 2000.)  The Sunshine State’s 29 electors is the biggest prize among the toss-up states and are very much in play this year.  North Carolina joined Florida in voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and currently has a Democratic governor so it could also end up in the Biden column.  Georgia does not have a recent history of voting for a Democrat having been consistently Republican in the last 6 presidential election and not having elected a non-incumbent Democrat to statewide office since 1998.  Nonetheless, as the Trump ads currently running on Atlanta television indicate, the incumbent is concerned about whether he can extend the GOP streak to 7.  Trump won Georgia by 5.1 percentage points in 2016, narrow, but far more comfortable than Brian Kemp’s 1.6 point advantage over Tracey Abrams in 2018.  

The Southern Path offers more rewards than the Northern Path.  The Northern states have 46 Electoral College votes.  The Southern states are worth 60 electors.  Florida and either of the other states pays a dividend that comes within 1 or 2 electors of the haul from the 3 Northern states.  

Another reason to give attention to the Southern Path, is that these states are moving toward the Democratic Party.  While the GOP has maintained the edge in these states, the margins are shrinking, and, as noted above, Democrats have had recent presidential successes in two of them.  Below the presidential level, when Democratic holdings in 2019 are compared with those in 2017, across the 3 states, the party could boast 3 more members of Congress, 11 more state senators and 28 more state representatives.   Investing resources in these states may pay Democrats rewards beyond securing votes in the Electoral College.  In Georgia, two Senate seats, two congressional seats and control of the state House are up for grabs.  Thom Tillis’ Senate seat and now that new maps are in place, one or more congressional seats could flip from GOP to Democrat in North Carolina.  Florida lacks statewide contests but congressional and state legislative seats are at stake. 

In addition to the Southern Path through the Southeast, a broader definition of the South reveals additional promising paths for Biden-Harris.  Dichotomizing the nation into Sun Belt and Rust Belt shows Arizona in the Sun Belt and its 11 electors and a Senate seat are widely considered to be in play.  Should Biden win Arizona plus Florida, that goes a long way to offsetting the Northern Path.

As a longer shot, Texas with its 38 electors could be competitive this year.  As in the other southern states, Democrats have made legislative gains, adding 4 congressional, 11 state House and a state Senate seat in 2018 even as they lost statewide contests.  

Of course, a successful Democratic strategy could mix and match by gaining one or more southern states along with a state or states on the Northern Path.  

In contrast with Democrats who have multiple targets of opportunity, President Trump has spent little time trying to expand his base.  Instead his strategy has been to double down on those who supported him in 2016 and hope to maximize turnout among those wearing MAGA hats. If state results closely parallel those of four years ago, the president can lose 2 of the Northern Path states but win a second term, if he holds on to every other state he won.  The only states that the Trump campaign seems poised to bid for that did not support his initial election offer 20 electors – 10 in Minnesota, 6 in Nevada and 4 in New Hampshire.      

Regardless of whether the South plays a role in this year’s presidential election, the dynamic states in the region will be increasingly contested by presidential candidates and as the parties vie for congressional control.


Dr. Charles S. Bullock, III, holds the Richard B. Russell Chair in Political Science and the Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor and University Professor of Public and International Affairs at The University of Georgia in Athens, where he was taught since 1968.

Dr. Bullock is one of the nation's leading scholars on Southern Politics in the United States, having authored, co-authored, or co-edited more than 30 books and 250 articles and chapters, including The New Politics of the Old South, now in its sixth edition. His teaching and research interests include Southern politics, legislative politics, elections and electoral systems, redistricting, and voting rights. 

(photo courtesy of The University of Georgia)