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By Howell Raines, Former executive editor, The New York Times

No matter the scandal or policy squabble, President Donald Trump knows he’ll always get a friendly public reception in the South. With Washington in an uproar, his support among voters remains strong in four key states of his Deep South block — Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia — even though his approval ratings of 49 percent to 57 percent run slightly behind his 2016 vote totals in all four. According to a new NBC/Survey Monkey poll of over 15,000 volunteer participants, his biggest slide — from 62 percent in the 2016 election to 55 percent — was in Alabama, where Trump may have suffered from endorsing a controversial loser in the heated Senate special election last December.

But the poll’s results also suggest Republicans have reason to worry about the upcoming 2018 congressional elections in Georgia, and across the rest of the South in general.

Respondents in Georgia were essentially even in their generic preferences for 2018, with 42 percent saying they were likely to vote Republican and 40 percent saying they were leaning toward Democratic candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives. This is important given that last June, the state’s solidly Republican 6th Congressional District in the Atlanta suburbs saw a fierce battle with national implications in a special election for the seat vacated by Tom Price, who has since joined and left the Trump cabinet.

Democratic newcomer John Ossoff spent close to $23 million but lost narrowly to Trump’s candidate Karen Handel. Yet in 2016, Trump carried the district by only 1 percent. These tight margins and big budgets have set the stage for more highly competitive races this fall.

Georgia is important as a bellwether for 2018 and 2020 because it is regarded as a state where demographic changes in major cities may give the Democrats a chance to win.

Georgia is important as a bellwether for 2018 and 2020 because it, along with Texas, is regarded as a state where demographic changes in major cities may give the Democrats a chance to win. These are states that have been considered safely Republican since the Reagan revolution changed the Southern electoral map in 1984. But growth in Hispanic and other minority populations coupled with an inflow of white voters from more progressive states could change the party coloration.

For this observer, NBC’s survey shows that Southern voters under 40 are trending in a notably more permissive direction than their elders on immigration and gender issues. This significant pattern in turn suggests younger Southern voters are becoming increasingly in tune with their generational peers in other regions, probably also reflecting the growing importance of cities like Atlanta, Houston and Birmingham.

Younger Southern voters are becoming increasingly in tune with their generational peers in other regions, probably reflecting the growing importance of cities like Atlanta, Houston and Birmingham.

Alabama’s biggest city played a decisive role in the December 2017 upset Senate victory of Democratic Doug Jones over former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, the Republican challenger endorsed by Trump despite allegations of child molestation. Early this year, the surprising defeat of a Trumpite state legislator by moderate Democrat Conor Lamb in a suburban Pittsburgh congressional district also raised the question of presidential (un)popularity.

So while Trump’s nonstop war against Washington elites does not seem to be damaging him irreparably in the South, support among members of his base does show signs of erosion.

For guidance on how to read incremental changes in the poll’s internal data, I turned to a former colleague with a deep knowledge of national political trends, Adam Clymer, the former polling director and chief congressional correspondent of The New York Times. Clymer offered this commentary by e-mail: “Trump supporters in almost all demographics are split fairly closely between those who strongly support/approve. Disapprovers are overwhelmingly strongly disapproving. I don't think that's good for Trump. To me it suggests a lot of his support is flabby. On this score, I think you'll find the region and individual Southern states like the nation, but this kind of enthusiasm gap is bad news for Republicans in close races.”

My guess is that the South will not look as monolithically Trumpian in the face of energized democrats in contestable states like Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia in 2018.

Clymer also pointed to immigration as an area where younger Southerners have a marked preference for more humane treatment. Trump’s tirades against illegal immigrants were a hallmark of his campaign and remain a favored talking point. And yet, nationally seven of 10 Americans favor a path to citizenship. This support holds in the South, where 67 percent of Georgians polled said they approve/strongly approve of making it possible for immigrants to stay in the U.S. The numbers were 63 percent in Mississippi, 61 percent in Tennessee and 60 percent in Alabama.

And in regions where some elected officials consistently agitate against the LBGT community, 78 percent of respondents 18 to 24 said they favor same-sex marriage. Another generational skew occurs with the six of 10 respondents who oppose the removal of Confederate monuments in Southern states. Minorities and younger voters tend to support removal while older voters, especially whites, seem strongly opposed.

Based on the poll and demographic factors cited here, my guess is that the South will not look as monolithically Trumpian in the face of energized Democrats in contestable states like Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia in 2018. The rest of America may be surprised by what happens in a longtime bastion of conservative support when a wounded presidents heads into what will almost certainly be contested primaries against a younger field in 2020.

Howell Raines was executive editor of The New York Times from 2001-2003, editorial page editor from 1993-2001, and prior to that Washington editor, national political correspondent and London bureau chief. Raines won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1993. He currently lives in Fairhope, Alabama, in the winter and spends his summers in Henryville, Pennsylvania.