America's disparate cultures respect no boundaries and continue to shape politics.

November 11, 2012

Regional divisions date back centuries

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Colin Woodard, “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” (Viking Press, 2011) © Colin Woodard

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COLIN WOODARD is the Press Herald’s State and National Affairs Writer and the author of “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.”

It should have come as no surprise that Romney swept Yankee-settled areas, including Wisconsin, Michigan, the Western Reserve of Ohio, northern Illinois and every county in Massachusetts and Vermont. Nor that Santorum beat his rivals by staggering margins in the Appalachian sections of Alabama and Mississippi, the southern third of Illinois, and eastern Tennessee. Nor that Gingrich was able to win only one of the more than 2,000 counties in Yankeedom, the Midlands, the Left Coast and Far West (Bent County, Colo., population 6,250).

The lines could be seen on the Democratic side too, where Barack Obama (who spent his entire adult life in Yankeedom) faced surprisingly stiff primary challenges from no-name candidates across Greater Appalachia. In West Virginia, 41 percent of Democrats cast their ballots for a Texan prison inmate, while 42 percent of Kentucky Democrats preferred "uncommitted." He won Arkansas, but lost many of its Appalachian counties by 30 to 50 percentage points to an attorney from the Appalachian part of Tennessee.

The general election was unusual in that both candidates had similar regional strengths and weaknesses. This could have given Obama a structural advantage in that Romney's strongest support in the primaries came from "blue" areas that were unlikely to vote Republican, and the Appalachian support critical to his winning swing states like Ohio and Virginia might be depressed. But it turns out there was an "enthusiasm gap" across the board. In Ohio, for instance, turnout was depressed in both Appalachian counties (almost all of which went for Romney) and in the Yankee Western Reserve (to which Obama owes his statewide victory).

Thus, in the lower Great Lakes states, the race was won the way so many presidential races are: by one candidate appealing to a narrow majority of voters in the fickle, Quaker-founded Midlands. Romney's rejection of the auto industry bailout -- he wrote a November 2008 New York Times op-ed piece titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" -- was probably his undoing in Ohio.

The election also confirmed a historic development a decade in the making: the undoing of the "Solid South" that Republican presidential candidates had come to count on. While the Deep South and Greater Appalachia remain solidly in their camp, the Tidewater country has become a reliable member of the "blue" coalition.

For students of history and political consultants alike, this is an epic development. The Tidewater -- which encompasses the Chesapeake Low Country, the lower two counties of Delaware, and much of eastern North Carolina -- was the most powerful regional culture in the 17th and 18th centuries. Built by the younger sons of southern English gentry, it was meant to reproduce the semifeudal manorial society of the countryside they'd left behind, where economic, political and social affairs were run by and for landed aristocrats.

It has long been fundamentally conservative, a culture in which a great value is placed on respect for authority and tradition, and very little on equality or public participation in politics.

But for the past two centuries, it has been in slow decline, blocked from westward expansion by its boisterous Appalachian neighbors and, more recently, eaten away from within by the ever-expanding federal halos around the District of Columbia and the federal military bases at Norfolk, Va. Literally millions of people across the region have moved here and live their cultural and economic lives without reference to the cultural and economic landscape of Tidewater. In electoral terms, the region has crossed the tipping point.

For two elections running, Tidewater counties from southern Delaware to east-central North Carolina have voted decisively for Obama. In 2008, his margin of victory in Tidewater was so great he was able to capture the Electoral College votes of both North Carolina and Virginia, despite overwhelming opposition across those states' Appalachian sections.

This year, the pattern was repeated. He narrowly lost North Carolina (which has a larger Appalachian section) and won Virginia by three points.

Nor was the pattern confined to the presidential race. In Virginia's U.S. Senate race, Democrat Tom Kaine owes his victory to strong support in the Tidewater, which allowed him to overcome Republican George Allen's 2- and 3-to-1 margins in most of the state's Appalachian counties.

The defection of Tidewater, combined with the growing electoral power of Spanish-speaking El Norte, will likely continue to give Democrats a critical edge in presidential and U.S. Senate contests in the coming years. Both parties ignore the implications of this underlying regional geography at their peril.

Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: cwoodard@mainetoday.com


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