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What Makes Southern Democrats Unique

From 1964 to 2008, three Democratic presidential candidates made it to the White House. All of them were southerners. Yet for the last half-century, the GOP’s Southern strategy eroded the Democratic Party’s stronghold on the South. States on the edges of the South — Virginia, Florida and North Carolina — have turned purple or a light shade of blue, but the heart of the South unquestionably remains Republican territory in presidential elections.

Nonetheless, Democratic voters in the South still exert significant influence on the party during the primary season. The states of the former Confederacy1 will elect a little over one quarter of Democrats’ pledged delegates in 2020 — six of them on Super Tuesday (Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia). And so as the 2020 Democratic primary contests move to the South, I figured it was worth a dive into what happened there in the 2016 Democratic primary, based on a 2016 survey of 3,668 Americans by the Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics, of which I am the director.2 It illustrates the ways in which Democrats in the South are different from Democrats outside of the region — differences that may again come into play in 2020.

They Are Much More Diverse

The racial composition of self-identified Democratic voters is dramatically different in the South. Outside of the South, the 2016 Blair Center Poll of African Americans, Latinx and white Americans shows that the racial breakdown of the party among these three groups was roughly 60 percent white, 17 percent African American and 23 percent Latinx. On average, in the states of the former Confederacy, those numbers were 38 percent white, 37 percent African American and 25 percent Latinx.

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That gap in diversity takes on heightened significance when candidates fare better among one racial/ethnic group compared to others. Among those who voted for either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries and caucuses, Clinton fared the best among African Americans in the South, who chose her over Sanders 87 percent to 13 percent, a five-point improvement over her performance among African Americans outside of the South. Similarly, Latinx voters in the South cast ballots for Clinton over Sanders 82 percent to 18 percent, a significant difference compared to Latinx voters outside of the South who favored Clinton over Sanders 65 percent to 35 percent. It is important to note that this regional gap was driven primarily by Latino men, 84 percent of whom supported Clinton in the South, compared to 58 percent of Latinos living outside of the region, while among Latina women the gap was smaller, 81 to 72 percent in the South and non-South, respectively.

Those differences help explain Southern Democrats’ overall preferences in the 2016 primary. On average, non-southerners voted 65 percent for Clinton to 35 percent for Sanders, but Clinton bested Sanders 77 percent to 23 percent among southerners.

Those numbers have me watching Latino voters in the 2020 Southern primaries. If they break strongly for Sanders in the South on Super Tuesday, it would indicate a major shift since the last presidential election cycle.

They Tend To Be Among The Poorest

In 2016, a greater percentage of Democratic primary voters in the South (23 percent) had an annual household income of less than $30,000, compared to 17 percent of Democratic primary voters outside of the South. But that, too, is complicated by race. For example, of the poorest non-Southern Democratic primary voters, the largest percentage were white (49 percent). However, in the South, whites comprise only one quarter of Democratic voters with household incomes that low. African Americans (50 percent) and Latinx (25 percent) comprised the bulk of such voters in the South at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Seemingly, low-income voters of color, particularly in the South where these voters are more highly concentrated, would be highly receptive to campaign messages aimed at leveling the economic playing field or providing more economic opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities. However, these low-income voters, irrespective of race or region, voted for Clinton over Sanders in 2016.

It could be that Sanders’ economic plans did not reach these voters effectively, or if they did, they didn’t resonate. Why? One theory: The South’s long history of racial economic oppression might have made his revolution seem less possible or pragmatic.

In many Southern states, federal programs that level the playing field between whites and people of color have met resistance time and time again, from school integration to the extension of voting rights. Take for example Medicaid expansion: Eight of the 14 states that refused to expand Medicaid after the Affordable Care Act was passed were in the South. Consequently, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation issue brief in January, 92 percent of adults3 who remain in the “coverage gap” live in the South, and they are disproportionately African Americans and Hispanics. On the other hand, states that have expanded Medicaid have seen these racial gaps in coverage in their states begin to close, according to a Commonwealth Fund survey, also in January.

The ability of state governments to block or redirect federal aid to the detriment of minority communities (as Texas has done with its federal welfare dollars) could make these voters ready for a revolution — or skeptical of one.

They Lean More Moderate Ideologically But Are Party Loyalists

Voter ideology also differs in the South. About 57 percent of 2016 Democratic primary voters in the South considered themselves “very liberal,” “liberal” or “moderately leaning liberal” compared to 64 percent of their non-South counterparts.

There is a long history of conservative or moderate Democrats in the South. For example, in the 1990s, many Southern, white, conservative Democratic members of Congress began referring to themselves as Blue Dog Democrats (loyal Democrats who had been “choked blue” by the leftward lunge of the party). The Blue Dogs even formed their own congressional caucus after the Democrats’ record losses in the 1994 midterm elections. Eventually, however, these fiscally and socially conservative Blue Dog Democrats of the South lost their seats to Republican challengers as white voters in the region realigned with the Republican Party. Today, that moderate to conservative ideological lean within the Democratic Party in the South is driven by African American and Latinx voters.

African Americans were the most ideologically moderate Democratic primary voters in the South in 2016. Yet they also expressed the strongest identification with the Democratic Party. This combination of moderate ideology and strong party loyalty that is characteristic of African American Democrats in the South — particularly women — may be the product of religious and cultural values. But it may also reflect a political pragmatism of sorts. When the majority of Southern white Democrats realigned with the GOP in the post-civil rights movement era, African Americans became the backbone of the modern Democratic Party in the South, not just at the ballot box but in state parties as officers and committee leaders. However, they did so right as the Democratic Party lost its majority control in the states of the former Confederacy. Thus, for Southern Democrats to pass any type of progressive legislation, no matter how incremental, they have had to reach across the aisle from the middle. That centrist perspective from the South’s Democratic base, who live blue in very red states, could trickle up to the 2020 Democratic primaries, with African American Democrats in the South looking for a candidate who can build a coalition from the middle outward.

Most Are Religious

Like the white, social conservative Blue Dog Democrats of the past, Southern Democrats are still more religious than Democrats outside of the region. That’s mostly because African American Democrats in the South say they’re fundamentalist more often than outside the South — 65 percent compared to 47 percent.

These fundamentalist, African American Democrats in the South seem to draw a line between personal morality and government policies that impose that morality on the collective. Only 17 percent of African Americans in the South who self-identify as both fundamentalists and Democrats, for example, support a law that would prohibit abortions in all circumstances.

Still, the separation of church and state to which many African American religious Democrats adhere should not overshadow the religious convictions and deep spiritual beliefs that so many hold. Moreover, if there is any Southern institution that rivals the Democratic Party in terms of its power as an organizational force for progressive change, it is the African American church, particularly in the right-to-work Southern states where union organizing is extremely restricted. This is why respect for personal religious belief and mobilization through religious institutions is critical for Democratic candidates campaigning in the South.

White Democratic Voters In The South Embrace Liberalism

In these primarily red states in the South, the GOP brand amplifies whiteness, Christianity and traditional gender roles. For the faction of white southerners who reject the GOP, they seem to do so quite definitively. In fact, they move to the far left of the Southern Democratic Party. For example, Southern white men who participated in the 2016 Democratic primaries are on average more ideologically liberal than the white male Democrats who voted in those primaries and caucuses outside of the region. Moreover, in the primaries and caucuses, they voted for Clinton in higher numbers (69 percent) than Democratic white men outside of the South (56 percent).

The story is slightly different among Southern white female Democratic voters, who are, on average, just as liberal as their counterparts beyond the Mason-Dixon line. Among the racial groups surveyed in the Blair Center Poll, white women gave Sanders his best numbers in the South in 2016 (38 percent). Sanders’s support among Southern white Democratic women was nearly double that of Southern Latina Democratic primary voters and four times that of African American women who voted in the Democratic primaries in the South last cycle.


  1. The states of the former Confederacy are: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. The census definition of the South is a broader geographical classification that also includes Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia, Delaware, District of Columbia and Maryland.

  2. The 2016 Blair Center Poll included 1,840 participants not living in the South and 1,828 respondents living there. The margin of error for each survey is approximately +/-2.4. Throughout the analyses that follow, the data were weighted to reflect national demographics and improve the representativeness of the sample.

  3. The brief from the Kaiser Family Foundation includes Oklahoma in its definition of Southern states that have not expanded Medicaid and thus have adult populations in the “coverage gap.” Excluding Oklahoma, 88 percent of adults who fall into the “coverage gap” in these 14 states without expansion live in the South, defined as the 11 states of the former Confederacy.

Angie Maxwell is the director of the Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics & Society and the author of “The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics.”