Polls and Elections: Southern Discomfort? Regional Differences in Voter Decision Making in the 2000 Presidential Election

Article excerpt

The contemporary American South continues to experience dramatic changes in population, economics, and partisanship that have fundamentally altered the political landscape of not only the region but the entire nation. The wide-ranging effects of these developments on electoral behavior are not entirely understood, but it is unquestionable that the New South remains as important in American politics--particularly presidential elections--as the Old South. With nearly two-thirds of the Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency, the South is a considerable electoral prize. (1) More than a decade ago, Black and Black concluded that "as the united South goes: so goes the nation" (1992, 344). It is no coincidence that the only Democrats to win the presidency since 1960 have hailed from former Confederate states (Lyndon B. Johnson from Texas, Jimmy Carter from Georgia, and Bill Clinton from Arkansas). Despite the critical political relevance of the region, Southern voting behavior has been an understudied area research. (2) To be sure, there is a rich descriptive literature detailing voting trends in the contemporary South (e.g., Black and Black 1992, 2003). Missing, however, is a comprehensive empirical study of the individual-level underpinnings of Southern voting behavior--not only how Southern voters compare to the rest of the electorate but also how they match up to our general theories of political behavior. (3)

Existing research has long noted that residents of America's Southern states demonstrate unique patterns of voting behavior--ranging from a substantially lower propensity to register and vote, to an increased likelihood of casting split-ticket ballots (i.e., most often voting for Republican presidential candidates and Democratic congressional candidates), to the transformation from a Democratic stronghold to an increasingly loyal Republican base in recent years (Burden and Kimball 2002; Frymer, Kim, and Bimes 1997; Wattenberg 2002). Empirical models of political behavior regularly include a "South" dummy variable to account for this Southern distinctiveness (e.g., Alvarez and Nagler 1998). Ultimately, however, an indicator variables tells us nothing about why Southern voters are unique or even what factors influence their singular patterns of political behavior. Are these trends attributable to simple differences in the distribution of fundamentals (such as demographics, ideological perspective, or partisan affiliation), or are the decision-making processes of Southern voters actually distinct from the rest of the electorate? More importantly, given the recent partisan realignment of the South, have the distinctive patterns of voting behavior disappeared? Cowden (2001) suggests that we are witnessing the "Southernization of the Nation and the Nationalization of the South." Sharer and Johnston similarly find evidence of "the nationalization of partisan politics" and the "closing of North/South comparisons" (2001, 623). Is the "South" dummy variable no longer necessary in our general models of presidential vote choice and turnout? Answers to these questions will speak not only to our understanding of recent political transformations in the South but also to our theoretical understanding of voter decision making, and even to our expectations about the future strength of the Republican and Democratic parties in the South.

Using survey data from Knowledge Networks in the 2000 election, we compare the voting calculus of Southern and non-Southern voters. Despite arguments that regional differences may be in decline, we find that the voting calculus of Southern voters differs from the rest of the electorate, with ideology weighed more heavily in the vote choice decision in the South. This effect is particularly pronounced among individuals cross-pressured between their party identification and ideological preferences. These findings suggest that general models of voting behavior should more carefully consider the importance of individual-level differences in decision making if we are to gain a full understanding of presidential voting behavior. …