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Election 2016: Dixieland Brand

Much of the history of postwar presidential politics has revolved around the South’s attempts to get presidential nominees of its liking. 2016 is the region’s greatest and most overlooked success.

The frontloaded primary calendar is a pattern begun by South Carolina Republicans and continued by Southern Democrats, in an effort to gain more influence over the process. In 1988, nine southern states voted together on the first truly super-sized Super Tuesday, with Democrats aiming to unite behind a centrist candidate. Instead, Jesse Jackson won four states, Al Gore three, and Michael Dukakis the two largest, Texas and Florida. But in 1992, Bill Clinton, despite losing 10 of the first 11 states, generated enough support to make it to Super Tuesday, where he swept four southern states, won six of seven overall, and rode that momentum to the nomination.

Until this year, that was the only true victory for Southern frontloading. The candidates who swept the South or came close were similarly dominant on the rest of the map. The candidates who faced tougher battles before claiming the nomination split the South as well, winning about half the states.

That’s not the case in 2016. Outside the old Confederacy, Donald Trump has won 22 contests and lost 17 (and was 19-17 before his Indiana victory left him functionally uncontested). Outside the Confederacy, Hillary Clinton has lost more states (21) than she’s won (16).

In past elections, those numbers would signal some Southern wins for the likes of Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee – or Hillary Clinton, who won four of the 11 Deep South states against Barack Obama. But this year, Clinton won all 11, generally by huge margins. Trump went 10-1, losing only Ted Cruz’s home state of Texas.

Trump would still have a majority of delegates even without the South, but the South set the narrative of Trump the frontrunner versus a field playing catchup; five of his seven Super Tuesday wins were in the South. And Clinton is about 100 pledged delegates behind Bernie Sanders outside the South.

The kicker: the South has come full circle. One of the few spot-on predictions this election season has been that Sanders’ weakness with African-American voters would doom his chances, especially in the South. In other words, the very voters Strom Thurmond and George Wallace sought to disenfranchise in previous Southern efforts to sway the election are the voters who will effectively choose this year’s nominee.


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