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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Nonsouthern Strategy

Last night, in the South Carolina debate among Democratic presidential candidates, John Kerry disclaimed his previous statement that it was a “mistake” for Democrats to believe they had to break Bush’s hold on the south to win the 2004 election. He declared: “I’ve always said I could compete in the south and we can win in the south”.
John Edwards saw Kerry’s statement and raised it. According to Edwards, it would be an “enormous mistake” for any Democrat to write off the south and its “enormous” cache of electoral votes. He added: “No Democrat has been elected president without carrying give southern states”.
Man, that’s putting the bar mighty high! Does anyone really believe the Democrats can win five southern states in 2004? If not, according to Edwards, they’re toast.
DR begs to differ. While he is not of the dogmatic “forget the south” school, he does believe that a basically nonsouthern strategy is the right one for the Democrats this year, if it is pursued in a sensible way. He submits, for your consideration, an extended excerpt from his recent article on the subject in The American Prospect. If you find it of interest, a link for the full article is included at the end of the excerpt.
The Nonsouthern Strategy: Not Whether But How
And now, as candidates and journalists shake the New Hampshire snows off their boots and the primary process heads south, we can look forward to a spate of media stories raising the question of whether any Democratic presidential candidate can effectively compete in the 11 southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Pundits will revisit Howard Dean’s maladroit remark about voters with “Confederate flag decals on their pickup trucks” and mull over last November’s big GOP gubernatorial wins in the region.
There’s one problem with the media’s question, though: It is irrelevant. The Democratic nominee will run a strategy anchored in non-southern states. And he should, for one simple reason: It is the only way to win. The reality is that just as you will not see much of George W. Bush in Providence, R.I., a Democratic message and strategy that can successfully oust the president will be one most palatable to the party’s base and to swing voters on the coasts, in the industrial Midwest and in border states, and throughout the burgeoning Southwest. The South will have little to do with it.
Here’s why. Putting the Gore-Nader vote together as an indicator of underlying Democratic strength, and comparing it with the Bush-Buchanan vote, the eight closest states the Democrats won in 2000 and will have to defend in 2004 are Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin. Using the same comparison, here are the eight closest states the Democrats lost in 2000, some of which they will obviously have to win in 2004: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Tennessee. By these rankings, only two out of 16 states critical to Democratic chances are in the South. Compare that with six in the Midwest and four in the Southwest and you have a sense of the mathematical logic that is driving the Democrats to focus their 2004 presidential strategy outside the South.
That logic is reflected in the state targeting lists put out by Democratic voter-mobilization groups. For example, Steve Rosenthal’s America Coming Together (ACT), which is shaping up to be the most important of these organizations, has a list of 17 targeted states, only two of which are in the South (including Florida, but with Arkansas substituted for Tennessee). The rest of ACT’s list is the same as above, with the addition of Maine and the substitution of West Virginia for Colorado.
Let’s face it: This ain’t rocket science. The data are pretty clear on where the Democrats need to concentrate their resources, and, given that their resources are limited, they will seek to concentrate them in the most efficient manner. By and large, that’s not in the South. End of story.
Or is it? Political stories are rarely so simple, and this one is no exception. There could, in fact, be negative consequences to the non-southern strategy that Democrats must avoid or mitigate if the strategy is to be politically effective in 2004 and beyond. First, by disregarding conservative southern voters, the Democrats might wind up with a message that’s too far left. Second, by ignoring the South too completely, the Democrats might miss some significant political opportunities — both short-term and long-term — in that region. Third, by pulling the presidential campaign out of the South, down-ballot Democratic candidates in the region (especially for the Senate) could be easy pickings for the GOP. Confronting these problems head-on could make the difference between a successful strategy and one that does more to weaken than help the Democrats’ chances.
One of the advantages of the non-southern strategy is that the Democratic presidential candidate won’t have to try to appeal to a bloc of very conservative southern white voters who aren’t likely to vote for him anyway. In Georgia, for example, more white voters say they’re conservative than say they’re moderate, and almost a third say they’re members of the religious right. And, of course, white voters in Georgia are notoriously susceptible to racial politics around issues like the Confederate flag. A national Democratic candidate who tailors his message to these voters will likely succeed only in depressing base turnout, without any compensating electoral payoff.
The possible disadvantage is that the candidate, free from this constraint, will run too far to the left in order to please the liberal base of the Democratic Party. That would be unfortunate, as well as quite stupid. The whole point of this strategy should be to allow the Democrats to craft a clear message that both excites liberal base voters and holds appeal for moderate white swing voters, especially in the Midwest where the loss of manufacturing jobs and health-care access have hit particularly hard.
A quick look at Ohio — perhaps the most coveted Democratic electoral target in the coming election — illustrates this. Al Gore lost Ohio’s 21 electoral votes by less than 4 points in 2000, and the combined Gore-Nader vote ran only 2 points behind the combined Bush-Buchanan vote. In that election, Gore got 41 percent of the white vote; 44 percent and he would have won the state.
The economic basis for such a modest increase should be there for Democrats in 2004. Heavily unionized Ohio (37 percent of voters are in union households, including 35 percent of white voters) has lost one-sixth of its manufacturing jobs since Bush took office, including a stunning 81,000 since November 2001, the official beginning of the current economic recovery. A strong critique of the Bush administration’s economic record should fall on receptive ears. It’s also worth noting that the Gore campaign basically abandoned Ohio in early October of 2000, shifting resources elsewhere; so, arguably, just having a candidate who competes in the state may get Democrats much of the additional support they need.
Finally, white voters in Ohio tend to be moderate rather than conservative. They are quite unlikely to consider themselves members of the religious right and are largely unaffected by issues like the Confederate flag. This will make it harder for Republicans to sway white voters away from their economic problems simply on cultural grounds, as the GOP can do so effectively in a southern state like Georgia.
But that doesn’t mean that Democrats can relax and be as liberal as they want to be about social issues and cultural sensibilities. On the contrary, Ohio, according to a recent Pew Research Center report, is still one of the more traditional states in the country on social issues. And about half of white voters there own a gun and tend to be suspicious of Democrats’ views on gun control.
This means that the non-southern strategy, if it is to succeed in a critical state like Ohio, still needs the kind of “values centrism” espoused by Bill Clinton. Yes, Democrats have to support bedrock principles like a woman’s right to choose, but that support has to be framed in moral terms these voters can understand (“safe, legal and rare”) and combined with moderate stances on issues like gun control (think “gun safety”).
The non-southern strategy is not about running as if every state were California. It’s more about running as if every state were Ohio — true to the Democratic principles and priorities cherished by the base but attentive to the concerns of the moderate swing voters who can put you over the top.

14 comments on “The Nonsouthern Strategy

  1. Andrew on

    The Democratic Party and the Democratic Nominee have to think beyond the Presidential election. They need to find ways to build a constituency in South that can help them elect Reps and Senators and that can help keep the country together. Sure, it might be mathematically possible for the Dem to win the Presidency without any effort in the South. But for the long term good of the country and the party, we need to find to communicate Democratic values to all those people in the South who are currently voting against their own best interests.

  2. reignman on

    im glad someone is saying this:
    “the eight closest states the Democrats won in 2000 and will have to defend in 2004 are Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin. Using the same comparison, here are the eight closest states the Democrats lost in 2000, some of which they will obviously have to win in 2004: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Tennessee. By these rankings, only two out of 16 states critical to Democratic chances are in the South. Compare that with six in the Midwest and four in the Southwest and you have a sense of the mathematical logic that is driving the Democrats to focus their 2004 presidential strategy outside the South. ”
    our fortunes lie in states that were solid GOP in 88, and are now all battleground/competitive:
    -new mexico

  3. NCGuy on

    LPY- let me try to clarify: it’s not the discussion of the South as a strategic region as part of electoral calculus that’s any type of a problem.
    It’s the monolithic interpretation of the region, and its implications. It’s my opinion that this bias persists at the national level, and particularly in the media, so I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.
    A few people have talked about how the “electability” argument for a candidate assumes that a person voting for the most “electable” candidate can better divine for a larger group of voters what they will find most attractive in candidate, and thus who they will vote for.
    It seems like South discussion is another reframe of electability. “How can Candidate X win or get votes in a region where so many voters are so easily duped by Republican propaganda? I mean, remember how easily they fell for race-baiting? Candidate X, how will you counter-hoodwink them?” It’s just easy for this to go down the wrong way.
    So how can we do damage to Republicans in the South?
    1. Dean was right, and still is- we need to spend time talking about economic issues. The Dean “Bush Tax” website about the trickling effect of lost revenue to state budgets needs to be discussed.
    2. Re-frame the “states’ rights” issue for what it is really about, self-determination. The Democrats need to say if Bush is for states’ rights, then why does he want to weaken tougher environmental standards passed by individual states? Why doesn’t the President want your state to pursue higher standards when you do?
    2a. Why does the Republican party want media consolidation, which reduces local control over content on TV stations? If more conservative communities don’t want trashy reality tv on at 8 p.m. on their CBS affiliate, why is the Bush administration and the FCC taking away that local choice by allowing for more media consolidation? I can’t BELIEVE the Dems are not running harder in this area. Talk about a stolen base on the values front!
    Finally, there’s the question about the non-Southern strategy that is the offense/defense question. Does concediing the more moderate southern states allow Bush to drop more resources into Midwest swing states? That’s my more electoral-calculus motivated fear about a non-southern strategy.
    I admit my discussion here is a bit rambling. If any of you works for a Democratic candidate, here’s my advice: stop talking about how you’re going to talk to “the South,” and start talking about what your agenda holds for TN manufacturing workers and those who lost textile jobs in the Carolinas.

  4. LPY on

    It’s a mistake to believe that non-Southerners talking about the South have a picture in their minds of Mississippi circa 1952. Many of us are well aware that there are enormous variations in economics and culture there: the Piedmont of NC is dramatically different from the coastal plain, which is different from the edge cities of the Atlanta metro area, which is different from the rural Delta, etc., etc. And yes, many of us have been there, have lived there for a time, and have family and friends from there. But taken as a whole, it is different, even if it’s far from the “Deliverance” charicature. It just is. Where else would the Republicans have been able to win a mid-term election on cultural wedge issues the way they did in Georgia in 2002? Where else to people vote so lopsidedly against their own economic interests? And if you look at polling on issues and values by region, the South is consistently, and dramatically, different from the rest of the country, not just Massachusetts and California. Moreover, it’s simply not possible to talk about electoral strategy in the US without talking about the South, because it’s so large, so important to the Republicans, yet in some places so seemingly winnable by the Democrats on core issues. If Southerners resent hearing the “South” being discussed by non-Southerners, too bad. It’s going to happen.

  5. NCGuy on

    Hi there. I’m a foreigner watching the election. To be more exact, I’m a US citizen and a North Carolina resident.
    Does anybody else realize how stupid the Democrats look talking about “the South?”TM
    TM- Trademark: “The South” brand is this backwards, racist place where everyone is busy working the fields that most citizens from the coasts have never visited, but still have mental impressions of the region that look like 1965. This is part of liberal media’s fault, as whenever they do a story in a Southern State, they go find a redneck and put them on tv because that’s their “representative” southerner.
    Let me tell you something, folks- I’m an NC citizen; been here 10 years. But I was born in MA, and I’m the son of 2 union members. NC has experienced a population explosion in the last few years, and many of those coming here are from the northeast.
    Furthermore, NC’s population overwhelmingly lives in urban and suburban areas, not rural anymore.
    As for environmental movements, yes, we have our hog lagoon problems. We also have probably the toughest power plant restrictions in the US under the NC Clean Smokestacks Act (which Bush policy seeks to undermine) and the country’s only statewide green-power buying program.
    http://www.ncgreenpower.com (or org, I forget)
    We’re building entirely new two rail transit systems in the next 5 years in the Charlotte and Raleigh areas, and Greensboro/Winston-Salem isn’t far behind.
    The town I live in had 193 latinos 10 years ago. THere are now 2000 in a population of 16,100 total.
    Throw out the perceptions. Yeah, the Dems are a lost cause in Alabama and Mississippi, but TN and NC in particular are changing rapidly.
    The national democrats don’t have any idea how nauseating the meta-discussion of “how we’ll talk to the South” is probably killing off swing voters here anyway. Dean has been right on, and he should keep talking about economic interests.
    I’m never voting for a Republican- period. But I’d prefer to vote for a Democrat who isn’t stuck on the TM view of “the South.”

  6. Grushka on

    LPY, I totally agree… I was venting not strategizing.
    I’m a recent visitor to sites like this which are extremely interesting and enlightening on political strategy and tactics. I’m enjoying it.
    However, for me, I still remember reading “1984” as a teenager and being truly depressed.
    And now, I see the Bush administration using the book as their guiding philosophy. The Iraq war was the “boot in the face”: a pure show of American destructive might. The Patriot Act to monitor “Inner Party” elites who might cause trouble. And so on.
    As far as tactics and strategy, I worry that all these sophisticated analyses will be easily derailed by Republican dirty tricks and Drudging. I don’t know if we can survive a Botox a day.
    Sorry if I’m rambling here…

  7. LPY on

    Grushka, If you haven’t read the very entertaining article “Let’s Ditch Dixie” that appeared in Slate a while back –http://slate.msn.com/id/102291/ — by all means go read it. But politics is about strategy, not emotion, and Northern secession is probably not a viable strategy. Remember that a lot of Southern states are within a decade or so of tipping towards a Democratic worldview, and there are lots and lots of people down there who despise Falwell and Robertson as much as you do.

  8. LPY on

    A non-Southern strategy is the right way to go (indeed it’s the *only* way to go), but it can’t be presented as an anti-Southern strategy. That is why I cringed when I was Kerry’s remark. It’s not just that a lot of people in Ohio and Missori share cultural values with the South, it’s that many of the critical swing voters in these and other states come FROM the South and still think of themselves to some extent as Southerners. I think of my 70-something aunt by marriage who lives in Oregon but is from a military family in Virginia. She thinks Bush is a fraud and a dolt, and she doesn’t share Southern fundamentalist values. Indeed, on a recent visit she talked about having gone to England to see a former foreign exchange student of hers- – now a transsexual –graduate from university. Yet she talks about the Confederate flag she owns as a symbol of her Southern heritage without any concern about its other symbolism. If the Democrats disparage the South and Southern values enough, they risk losing her — and Oregon.

  9. Grushka on

    When I think of the sophisticated, productive, urban and urbane Northeast and the sensibile Midwest being ruled over by the utterly regressive policies and politicians of the South, it makes me ill.
    I can’t help but dream about how much better off America would be if Texas were its own republic. Giving retarded youngsters the death penalty, spewing pollutants into the air, water and soil without limit, espousing an empty, bellicose religious ethic…
    It truly fills me with despair.

  10. frankly0 on

    One final point, for now.
    Paying attention to electoral math probably is the WRONG thing to do when it comes to crafting a message, for the reasons I’ve mentioned. It is, however, the RIGHT thing to do when it comes to allocating resources, which can be deployed in as complex a fashion as one wants to serve the end of getting the maximum number of electoral votes.

  11. frankly0 on

    One way I suspect that would greatly simplify thinking about how to craft a message is to adopt the seemingly counterintuitive premise that ONLY the popular vote counts, NOT the electoral vote.
    Here’s the point: if one cares about the POPULAR vote, one CAN’T ignore the south, because all votes there would count as well toward the larger popular vote tally. Now this may seem crazy, because it’s only the electoral vote that really counts, but the effect is exactly what is necessary: it simplifies the message, it retains maximal competitiveness in all regions of the country, and it positions the message on the left-right axis exactly where it needs to be to get the greatest number of popular votes, and, NOT ACCIDENTALLY, the greatest number of ELECTORAL votes (which will almost certainly come about through the “rising tide” effect).

  12. frankly0 on

    This analysis strikes me as one of the very best and most sensible I have ever read on how to deal with the “Southern Problem”.
    One basic difficulty posed by the south can be expressed as follows. On the one hand, if the Democratic candidate wins even a single southern state, he will, almost certainly, ALREADY have won the election on the basis of other, non-southern states he will have won even more handily. On the other hand, if the Democratic candidate fails to come close to winning in ANY southern state, he almost certainly will NOT have won enough non-southern states to win the election. In this sense, it is a serious mistake simply to ignore the sensibilities of all Southern voters, because for a good number of them, those sensibilities are not terribly different from large segments of voters in other regions. It is this consideration that exposes the real danger of “kissing off” the South — namely the deviation into a message far too much to the left to win the general election.
    I think that the suggestion to craft the democratic message to appeal, for example, to people in Ohio (where Ohio is really a stand in for a much larger region, and a much larger segment of voters across the US) is exactly right. Such a message would have to be a moderate one, and would also appeal to a large number of voters in the South, if not enough to win a single southern state. And this competitiveness in the South would have the desired effects of making the way far easier for down ticket Southern Democrats.
    Focusing on a state like Ohio, or, more precisely, the composition of voters it represents, allows the Dem candidate to simplify and sharpen his message — absolutely critical to the success of that message. The fatal flaw in paying too much attention to electoral math is that it tends to fragment and complicate a message, and a complicated message never gets through. It makes sense to tailor a message to broad segments of the American electorate, but too much attention to very localized issues will only confuse and stupefy the average voter.
    If a candidate’s message is simple, direct, and appeals to broad segments of the American electorate including most voters in Ohio, then there will be a “rising tide” effect that will increase the candidate’s votes in ALL states, even if that increase is not enough to win in a good number of them.

  13. Jon on

    Good points well made, but it does not address my biggest fear about this strategy.
    The Republicans get the South to vote against its economic interests by bonding with it culturally. (The one thing Dean was right about) The more appealing that the Dems make its economic message to the South, the more the republicans have to defend the lunacy of Pat Robertson and wrap themselves up in the confederte flag. These things scare moderates in the Midwest, and fire up the liberal base at the same time. In other words a Candidate who comes within striking distance in Georgria is the only candidate who CAN win Ohio.
    Put another way, if the GOP can take the south for granted, Bush will be allowed to triangulate away from the extreem voices that scare Moderates. Think Clinton and Sisah Soldja.
    This does not even address the fact that a message that comes close in Georgia would win Indiana and Tenessee and one that did NOT come close in Georgia would loose those states.
    This northern strategy is lazy political suicide designed to reassure ourselves about our presumptive nominee. A national stratgey does not mean you plan on winning every state but it means using every state to win. Everyone secretely knows who the White House is afraid of. Its not too late to make him our nominee.

  14. FMguru on

    Thank you.
    Thank you.
    Thank you.
    I’ve never understood the general pundit-class fascination with “the South”. I know that the most important political trend of the last few decades was the shift of the south to a GOP stronghold, but it’s demonstrably not the case that as the South goes, so goes the nation. Democrats run badly in the South, true. But Republicans run badly in the Northeast and on the Pacific coast (until 1992, California was a GOP stronghold). So why do we never hear people tut-tutting the Republicans about their inabilty to contest New York?
    The Reps have the South and the Mountain West, the Dems have the Pacific Coast and the Northeast, and the battleground is the MidWest. Whoever wins the big swing states (Ohio, Michigan, etc.) in the MidWest wins the election.
    The Dems should lock down their base, deploy resources into the battleground states, and ignore the South in the same way that Republican will ignore California or Massachusetts. They should keep an eye on the South, looking for vulnerable seats or promising newcomers, and should concentrate on building some long-range party infrastructure in the region, if only to cause the Reps to scramble to cover their base.
    The real opportunities are to be found in the Mountain West region, in states like Wyoming and Arizona and Nevada and New Mexico. Growing electoral votes, growing hispanic populations, rising yuppie ideopoli, and increasingly strong Democratic showings in the polls.
    If the Democrats want to go hunting for traditionally Republican votes, they’d be better off crafting a message about water rights, immigration, land use, and nuclear waste, instead of prayer in school and the confederate flag.


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