Those of us who teach Arkansas politics have to rewrite some lecture notes after Election 2012. No matter the ultimately hairsbreadth GOP margin in the state House of Representatives, the key region in determining the outcome of statewide elections in Arkansas appears to have finally swung in a markedly Republican direction. This outcome has decisive implications for the future of electoral politics in the state.
This small state is composed of five distinct regions when it comes to its electoral politics. Two of those regions are now reliably Republican in their voting patterns — the historically Republican Northwest Arkansas region where GOP sentiments going back to the Civil War era have been emphatically reinforced by the monstrous growth in the contemporary era, and the donut of counties surrounding Pulaski County where a combination of "white flight" and white collar arrivals have created a second fast-growing Republican region. Together, these areas now account for about 40 percent of the Arkansas vote.
A combination of African-American voters and white progressives makes Pulaski County a third distinctive "region" that skews Democratic in its voting patterns. Joining it on the Democratic side is the swath of counties to the southeast covering the Arkansas Delta where white voters are typically overwhelmed by reliably Democratic African-American voters to create a second Democratic-leaning "region." These two groups of counties compose about one-third of the state's electorate.
Because neither set of regions achieves a majority of the state's electorate, modern state elections have been decided in the 25 or so predominantly white, sparsely populated, culturally conservative "rural swing" counties running diagonally from the southwest corner of the state to the northeast corner skipping over the Little Rock metropolitan area. Their role in close state-level contests has been decisive, often delivering wins to Democratic and Republican candidates in the same year as they did for Mark Pryor and Mike Huckabee in 2002. They are counties where Mike Beebe's populist message (pro-minimum wage laws yet pro-gun) led to overwhelming margins in both 2006 and 2010.
In presidential elections, these counties swung hard for the "states' rights" campaign of George Wallace in 1968, against George McGovern in 1972, and back again for Jimmy Carter in 1976. They swung wildly again for Ronald Reagan's reelection in 1984 and George Bush in 1988, back again to Arkansas's own Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and back the other direction for George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004. In 2008, of course, it is these counties that so fervently rejected Barack Obama as "not one of them" culturally or racially.
The first four groups of counties remained generally stable between 2008 and 2012. But, the "rural swings," having already swung emphatically against Obama in 2008, took their rejection of the president to a new level in 2012. Indeed, many of these counties outpaced more cosmopolitan areas in the suburbs around Little Rock and those in Northwest Arkansas in their support for GOP nominee Mitt Romney. For instance, Pike County — the Southwest Arkansas county home to Arkansas's diamond mine and a classic rural swing county ("dry," over 90 percent white, and with no town larger than 2,000) — went for Romney by greater than three to one, besting by nearly 20 points George W. Bush's margin there in 2000.
This year's battle for control of the General Assembly was also fought out in counties like this. In these elections, state Democrats clearly outperformed Obama, but the GOP success in tying Democrats to the president decided control of the legislature. For instance, the House district in Northeast Arkansas where the recount occurred that determined control of that body cut across a swath of rural swing counties that would have traditionally favored any Democrat until the last two election cycles.
The decisiveness of the Republican gains in these counties in 2012 suggests that they may have swung so hard that, combined with the other two GOP-leaning regions, there is now a comfortable Republican advantage in all statewide elections. The statewide elections in 2014 will test this hypothesis. Probable Democratic gubernatorial nominee Dustin McDaniel may be able to bring some of the rural swing counties in the northeast part of the state back into play for his party, but the Obama-era gains up and down this spine of rural counties suggests that they have left behind their populism of the past and may well quash Arkansas Democratic hopes in the future.