Share

Policy: Labor

EXography: South's anemic economy may explain why Obama won and GOP lost

By |
Politics,Sean Higgins,Barack Obama,Jobs,Labor,2012 Elections,2016 Elections,Campaigns,Economy,Analysis,EXography

Economic recoveries are never even. Some places are always better poised to grow than others. One of the striking things about the current recovery is that the region that is hurting the most is the red-state South.

This little-noticed trend may be a key to the polarization of American politics.

Among the 11 states of the old Confederacy, there was a net job gain of just about 69,000 between the end of 2008 and 2012, according to data from Bureau of Labor Statistics, as illustrated in the accompanying EXography map created by Lee Ann O'Neal.

Compare that to New York's gain of 131,000 jobs, nearly twice as many as the entire South (minus the job-creation machine that is Texas, with its staggering gain of more than 446,000 positions).

It gets worse when it is noted that only four southern states account for all of the region's job gains. Take them out and the South suffered a collective loss of 165,000 jobs since 2008.

Throw in the border state of Missouri, and the loss total reaches 228,000 jobs since President Obama took office. So, it is hardly surprising that the region mostly spurned President Obama in 2012. He won only two Southern states.

Many liberal pundits persist in attributing the South's GOP tilt to racial politics. But for Southern voters, there was a much simpler, bread-and-butter reason for rejecting Obama. His claim that the economy was on the mend was demonstrably not true for many of them.

The two states that Obama won aren't exceptions. Florida, which lost more than 47,000 jobs in the last four years, has long been an outlier in the region and a tossup in national elections, thanks to unique demographics stemming from massive retirement migrations to the state from the Northeast.

Meanwhile, the once-solidly Republican Virginia has steadily moved into purple-state territory due to explosive growth in its northern region, a government-dependent suburb of the nation's capital.

With just under 17,000 in jobs gained in four years -- not coincidentally, during a period of rapid government expansion -- it was hardly surprising that Old Dominion voters were willing to give the president a second term.

Compare Virginia with the one Southern state Obama won in 2008 but lost last year: North Carolina. Democratic strategists had high hopes winning it again but, with a net loss of 18,000 jobs since Obama was elected, Tar Heel State voters decided not to give him a second chance.

In retrospect, the Obama campaign's decision to portray Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat with no concern for people's jobs was pretty astute. In those states where the jobs situation was essentially a wash like Ohio and Pennsylvania, the Obama appeal played into voters' economic anxieties.

And in the meantime, Obama could claim to have prevented things from getting worse, thanks to the General Motors and Chrysler bailouts and the economic stimulus program.

It also served to undermine Romney's red-state support. As the Associated Press noted, Romney's defeat came in part because turnout from white voters fell. Had turnout remained at 2004 levels, when the economy was still growing, Romney likely would have been inaugurated in January instead of Obama.

For struggling Republican voters, the choice was between the incumbent whose stories of a growing economy were contradicted by everything they saw, and the guy who supposedly got rich by buying companies and firing their employees. Many decided to just stay home.

That suggests the current demographic panic among Republican Party officials is overstated. While it is never a good idea to ignore growing demographic groups, a more pressing problem for the GOP is finding a message that speaks to the realities of the economy.

Without such an appeal, the GOP cannot drive turnout of its base voters or win the swing votes required to carry tossup states. Such a message might even make inroads into Hispanic, Asian and other minority groups.

Throughout the 2012 election campaign, GOPers assumed the weak economy would defeat Obama. It didn't because his things-are-getting-better rhetoric was close enough to reality in states he had to carry.

Republicans tend to scorn economic populism, seeing it is little more than attacks on the idea of success itself. But, as the Washington Examiner's own Timothy P. Carney has relentlessly pointed out, the economy is rigged in far too many ways to favor the wealthy.

There's nothing free-market about crony capitalism. People in the South who are struggling to get ahead in the Obama economy would probably agree.

View article comments Leave a comment