Beltway Republicans are panicking over Donald Trump’s landslide in Nevada. But, if they thought the Wednesday after Nevada was bad, just wait for the Wednesday after Super Tuesday. Tuesday’s contests include the so-called SEC primary with six states of the former Confederacy and a seventh, Oklahoma, which votes like a southern state.
Not long ago, many thought the foul-mouthed, irreligious, thrice-married purveyor of New York values would struggle in the genteel, mannerly and deeply religious South. Trump’s 10-point victory in South Carolina put that notion to rest.
But why? Hadn’t Ted Cruz dominated among evangelicals in Iowa, winning by 12 points over Trump? The two states appear religiously similar, with evangelicals making up 62% of Republican caucus-goers in Iowa and 67% of primary voters in South Carolina.
Yet, Trump bested Cruz among evangelical South Carolinians by 8 points, a remarkable 20-point shift from Iowa.
The reason Trump won South Carolina and is likely to romp to victory in the southern Super Tuesday states is the persistent importance of race in Southern politics.
Conservative racial attitudes are central to why the South went from being a solidly blue region before JFK and LBJ embraced Civil Rights to becoming a solidly red region since. Moreover, racial attitudes differ substantially between Southern evangelicals and evangelicals living elsewhere.
First some background - the data in the chart below shows the evolution of white Republicans and white Democrats racial attitudes over time. The measure of racial attitudes we employ here is called racial resentment. Random samples of Americans are asked to respond to each of the following statements, answering on a five-point scale arrayed from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”
1. “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”Those who provide the least resentful responses about blacks (“strongly agree” to questions 1 and 2; “strongly disagree” to questions 3 and 4) score at 0 and those who provide the most resentful responses to the four items (“strongly agree” to questions 3 and 4; “strongly disagree” to questions 1 and 2) score at 1. Of course, the average response for most people is somewhere in between.
2. “Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.”
3. “It's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”
4. “Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.”
In the chart below, we display the distributions of scores calculated from the survey responses. The higher the bar is, the more people fall into the category. Blue bars correspond to white Democrats and red bars correspond to white Republicans. The panel on the left is from responses in 1986, the first year the items were asked. The panel on the right is from responses in 2016, data that were released earlier this week.
In 1986, white Republicans and Democrats didn’t differ in their racial attitudes. Indeed the average scores are almost identical. In addition, few Americans provided responses at the extremes of the scale. Only about 12 percent of Democrats and nine percent of Republicans fell in the two categories closest to the most racially resentful poll.
A lot has changed in 30 years. The average white Democrat and Republican have never before provided such divergent responses. Although Democrats have become slightly less racially resentful over time, the real change has occurred among Republicans. They have become far more racially resentful, even as the country has moved away from the worst parts of its troubled racial past.
In 2016, nearly 38 percent of Republicans fell in the two most racially resentful categories, with nearly a quarter in the very most resentful one. Indeed, the two most common categories for Republicans to fall into were the two most racially resentful ones.
To us, then, it is not surprising that a candidate who is well known for questioning President Obama’s citizenship and suggested that a Black Lives Matter protester at one of his rallies be “roughed up” and said that black youths have “never done more poorly” because “there’s no spirit” would be attractive to a party that these days is dripping with racial resentment.
The picture above shows us the party divide on race, but nothing about why Trump plays well in the South, specifically, despite his absence of decorum, religiousness and gentility.
Perhaps not surprisingly given the legacy of segregation and the struggle for Civil Rights in the region, white Southern Republicans express far more racial resentment than white non-Southern Republicans. The chart below shows that, in 2012 (the most recent year with a sample large enough to make reasonable inferences across so many groups), 42 percent of Southern GOPers score in the scale’s most resentful four categories, compared with only 31 percent of non-Southern Republicans.
And evangelical Republicans? Their racial attitudes differ depending on which region they hail from, too.
The first chart below compares self-identified evangelicals from inside and outside the South. Although both groups score on the racially resentful side of the scale, the tendency is much greater for Southern evangelicals - 49percent of them score in the scale’s top four categories, 13 points more than non-Southern evangelicals.
In fact, among white Southern Republicans, evangelicals exhibit higher levels of racial resentment than do Southern Republicans who are not evangelicals. These results appear in the next figure. Fully 57 percent of Southern evangelicals score in the scale’s most resentful four categories, compared to 44 percent for Southern non-evangelicals.
These numbers matter when considering Super Tuesday’s consequences. Southern states constitute 428 of the 632 delegates at stake next Tuesday. Except for perhaps Texas, the strongly evangelical South is unlikely to be Cruz country, despite his evangelical-friendly message. The reason is because Donald Trump appeals on a different level to Southern evangelicals, a group that possess extraordinarily high levels of racial resentment. The result ought to be a big day for Trump, making his nomination seem even more inevitable.
Contributing Editor Marc Hetherington is a voting and public opinion scholar at Vanderbilt University. His most recent book "Why Washington Won’t Work: Polarization, Political Trust, and the Governing Crisis" came out last summer from the University of Chicago Press.