For what is arguably the first time in 50 years, the American South is poised to play an unpredictable and decisive role in this presidential election. The region has already shaped the general election: Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton solidified primary victories there. Last month, Scalawag and The Nation co-hosted a panel discussion addressing the politics of the South, its history, and its role this year’s election.
The panel included Elizabeth Bruenig, a Texas native and editor covering politics and religion at The Washington Post; Kareem Crayton, a scholar and political consultant who teaches law at Vanderbilt University; Josie Duffy, an Atlanta-native trained attorney turned staff writer at The Daily Kos; and Jake McGraw, public-policy coordinator at the William Winter Institute at the University of Mississippi. Moderating the conversation was Jesse Williams, co-founder and editor in chief of Scalawag.
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Jesse Williams: Kareem, I was going to start with you, actually. This primary cycle, people talked about the South as the place where Sanders needed—and failed—to beat Hillary, and where Cruz needed and largely failed to beat Donald Trump. Is that saying the South was decisive in these primaries overstating its role?
Kareem Crayton: The South has been crucial for two different reasons, but the narratives on both the Democratic and Republican side are pretty accurate. On the Democratic side, the winner of the nomination contest is usually the person who can get traction in the South, often in the Deep South. That’s heavily dependent on appeal to African-American voters.
For Republicans, the South is one of, if not the, bedrock location, and Trump surprised a lot of people there. I often think back to the moment in August of 2015 where Trump visited Mobile, in southern Alabama. Trump was able to fill a football stadium located 30 minutes from the panhandle of Florida—which is right in the heart of what most social conservatives would say is the epicenter of their support. It seemed to me that Trump’s strong showing there was a big warning sign, for Jeb and Senator Rubio as much as for Senator Cruz, all of whom I think were basing their strategies on capturing some share of southern Republican voters.
So in both those respects I think you can establish the South as being crucial to outcomes in both parties.
JW: Jake, you’re in Mississippi, not all that far from Mobile. How does that resonate for you?
Jake McGraw: I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to wrap my head around it. In the Mississippi primary, Trump won what was almost his largest share of the vote up to that point. He hadn’t yet eclipsed 50 percent, but he got 47 percent in Mississippi. What was interesting was that we had a very clear divide between the Republican “establishment” in this state and the actual outcome of the primary. Kasich was very successful in locking up a lot of the most prominent members of the Mississippi Republican Party. Kasich spent a lot of time here; he actually came down the week before the primary and showed up at a Republican Party fundraiser here for the state party, whereas Trump had maybe one or two rallies.