On November 6, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama will carry almost all the states in New England, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will carry almost all the states in the Deep South. A hundred years ago, that result was almost exactly reversed: Republicans dominated in the Northeast and Democrats dominated in the South. Although everything else about national politics has changed over the intervening century, the one pattern that persists is the divide between North and South. It’s a divide that traces back to the origins of the Republic, and almost tore the nation asunder in the Civil War.
Because this divide has remained so durable even as the national population has gradually shifted southward and westward, a handful of swing states usually decide the outcome of presidential elections. The most important swing states today are Florida, Ohio and Virginia, and what makes them swing states is that each one replicates at the local level the same cultural and political divisions that explain why Massachusetts is such a different place from Mississippi. Understanding the north-south split within each big swing state goes a long way toward illuminating how presidential races turn out.
Take Ohio, the state that has sent seven of its native sons to the White House — all of them Republicans. The Buckeye State was settled in the north by New Englanders and in the south by Virginians. The Almanac of American Politics identifies the border between northern and southern Ohio as running roughly along old interstate route 40, which bisected the state parallel to where the newer I-70 runs. When Barack Obama carried the state in 2008, he did so by winning the big cities and suburbs north of this line; but he didn’t win much south of the line because that is southern Ohio, where people think differently. For instance, Obama won a slim majority in Cincinnati (in the state’s southwest corner) but lost the surrounding suburbs, which isn’t so surprising when you realize that Cincinnati hadn’t voted Democratic in a presidential election since 1964. In fact, it was the only big city that didn’t vote for FDR in the 1930s.
Virginia is another key swing state with a well-defined north-south divide. Although it formerly hosted the capital of the Confederacy, the Old Dominion has seen an influx of liberal-leaning voters in its northern suburbs as the federal government has grown since World War Two. For a while after the civil rights movement gained momentum, it looked like Virginia would follow other southern states in migrating from longstanding support of the Democratic Party to embracing the increasingly conservative Republicans. But that trend was impeded by the arrival of so many independent and progressive voters in places like Arlington and Fairfax County. When combined with the votes of other Democratic enclaves in Richmond and Hampton Roads, the votes of these newcomers were enough to convert an emerging Republican stronghold into a toss-up state.
Florida is the biggest prize among swing states with 29 electoral votes (Ohio has 18, Virginia 13), and it too has a north-south divide. But the twist in the Sunshine State is that the farther north you travel geographically, the farther south you go culturally. Republicans typically pile up big majorities in the northern counties near the border with Alabama and Georgia while losing counties at the opposite end of the state like Miami-Dade and Broward by similarly lopsided margins. The main reason why the southern tip of the state votes Democratic is the influx of millions of northerners who have chosen to retire there. The middle of the state around Orlando thus becomes the dividing line between two political cultures, and the way those central counties vote can decide which party gets the state’s electoral votes.
With all the talk of ethnic, economic and ideological voting blocs in election coverage, it is easy to lose sight of how crucial the old north-south divide still is to presidential election outcomes. But when you look closely, what you often find is that a 200-year-old cultural rift between north and south is still driving our national politics, and that divide is readily apparent in some of the swing states that are so vital to winning the presidency.