By Hastings Wyman –
In the apparent turmoil in the Republican nominating process, it is next to impossible to forecast intelligently about what might happen in the presidential election, even in the South, this November. Recent history suggests that most of the South would end up in the GOP column, but three big states – Florida, North Carolina and Virginia – would be competitive and might go either way.
This year, however, there is a possibility that frontrunner Donald Trump will fail to get the 1,237 delegates he needs to secure the Republican nomination on the first ballot, leading to a contested convention choosing someone else – Ted Cruz? – to head the ticket. In this scenario, the response of Trump’s supporters – even if entirely peaceful – would be likely to distort Dixie’s normal voting patterns, with or without Trump leading a third party.
Another possibility – probably more likely – is that Trump will win the nomination and that a number of Republican lawmakers and movers-and-shakers will mount a third-party effort. Here again, the South’s normal voting pattern would be affected.
Now that the presidential primaries and caucuses in the Southern states have been concluded, except for Kentucky’s Democratic Primary scheduled for May 17, it is useful to look at the returns in 12 Southern contests, in both parties, for clues to what might happen in this unprecedented presidential election.
Omitting Kentucky, the total of Republican votes cast in the 12 contests in the South (the old Confederacy plus Oklahoma) was 12,362,421, or 61% of the total vote. On the Democratic side, the total was 7,842,028, or 39%. In general, the Republican turnout was up over recent contests, while the Democratic turnout was lower than in 2008, the last year with no incumbent president on the ballot.
In any other leap year, these numbers would suggest a strong showing for the GOP this November, perhaps even a sweep of the entire region.
This year, however, the deep-seated opposition to Trump among many Republican leaders, including some prominent Southerners, raises questions about voter behavior this fall. Will Republican voters turn out in large numbers for the party nominee, or split their votes with a conservative third-party candidate, or even stay home?
Looked at in this light, things look up for Hillary Clinton. She received 5,209,670 votes in the 12 Democratic contests in the South, more than any other single candidate in either party. In second place was Trump, with 4,664,827 votes. If the other Republican candidates stand by their promises to support the party nominee, and support him energetically, Trump would be strong throughout the South, with Florida, North Carolina and Virginia the usual question marks.
If come this fall, however, the GOP split is still pronounced, the Republican outlook is much less favorable. Ben Carson has endorsed Trump and if his 515,809 votes are added to Trump’s, that would still put the GOP in troubled waters if significant portions of the 7 million-plus Dixie Republicans who backed Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich or Jeb Bush do something else besides giving their votes to Trump.
If Trump is not the nominee, his 5 million-plus Southern voters are very likely to boycott – in some fashion – the non-Trump choice of the dreaded Republican establishment.
Either scenario in which the GOP is divided would give Clinton a significant shot at winning not only Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, but other Southern states as well. In 2012, President Obama received 40% or more of the votes in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. If the Republican split is deep enough, one or more of these five states could move into the Clinton column.
Clinton, of course, will be likely to see some opposition among Bernie Sanders’ Southern voters, but it’s a good bet that there is not as much anti-Clinton sentiment among Democratic liberals in the South as exists in the rest of the country.
So how the Republican Party sorts out its current conflicts will very likely determine the outcome of the 2016 election, even in the GOP base, the near-solid South. Stay tuned.