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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Once Again on the Southern Question

Two conservative titans, Bob Novak and George Will, faced off today in the op-ed pages of The Washington Post on the southern question: do or do not the Democrats really need the south? And the winner was……George Will. He pointed out, correctly, that the Republicans won many presidential victories in the years after 1880 while winning few southern electoral votes and frequently none at all. Therefore, the idea you need the south to win presidential elections is ahistorical and ignores the changing regional bases of the parties. (Ignore, however, Will’s bizarre contention that the realignment of the south toward Republicans in recent decades had nothing (!) to do with race.)
Novak, on the other hand, relied on that old chestnut “no Democrat has been elected president without winning at least five states of the Confederacy”, including Bill Clinton. But as David Lublin and Tom Schaller point out in their excellent article on The American Prospect website, it’s also true that Clinton would have been elected anyway without any of those southern states.
The logic of this–a Democrat that can win five southern states will almost certainly not need to win them because of electoral strength outside the south–has been well expressed by a frequent commenter on this site and DR thought he’d just reproduce Frankly0’s comment here (originally offered in response to DR’s post on “The Nonsouthern Strategy“):
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.

Exactly. Don’t forget the south, but the way to the south lies outside it, in states like Ohio. Or to put it in Zen terms: you can’t hit the (southern) target if you’re aiming at it.
Point of clarification: The definition of south DR uses is the 11 states of the Old Conderacy: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Some add Kentucky (like Novak above, who would have five states, not four, in his little factoid if he didn’t include Kentucky). Others add Oklahoma. And there are even those who, in a Mason-Dixonish mood, add West Virginia, Maryland and DC. But the Old Confederacy 11, in DR’s view, is basically what the argument is about and it is there he shall stick.

15 comments on “Once Again on the Southern Question

  1. DH in DC on

    Thanks for the thoughts on Florida. It’s just that with all this talk about the “southern strategy,” i.e., how hard the Dems should compete in the south, it helps me to have a clear understanding of what the south means to those offering opinions on this subject. It seems to me that Florida has more in common with a number of Northern states than it does Mississippi, Georgia or Texas.

  2. Ron Thompson on

    If by asking whether Florida is part of the South, you mean “Were most Floridians born in the South?” then the answer is No. 33% of Floridians were born in Florida, another 13% elsewhere in the South, 38% in the rest of the country including Puerto Rico, and 17% are foreign born. Those are 2000 census figures.
    It would be nuts not to compete in Florida.

  3. David T on

    DH: Florida may or may not be part of “the South” these days, given the large number of people who came there from the North or from Latin America (not only Cuba). But it does have some authentic white “southerners” similar to those found in, say, southern Georgia. To be sure, Democrats are very unlikely to win the *majority* of such “Dixie” Floridians. But whether they win only a small minority of them or a larger minority may help determine whether they carry Florida as a whole. The same is true, by the way, for rural Missouri, which also contains many “southerners” in the cultural sense. Rural Missourians are not likely to cast a majority of votes for the Democrats–but a sufficient *minority* of them, combined with the Democratic majorities in St. Louis and Kansas City, can enable the Democrats to carry the state. In short, the Democrats must not write off white southerners because that means writing off some key voters *even in states that are not unequivocally southern*. (And of course that even applies to some states that are not classified as southern or even border states at all, but have culturally somewhat “southern” areas–notably southern Ohio. I’m not so much worried about southern Illinois or southern Indiana, becuase in any close presidential race, Illinois will go Democratic anyway, and Indiana Republican.)

  4. PaulC on

    It seems to me that the whole thing will come down to what issues dominate the campaign. If cultural issues dominate the campaign, then the Democrats will lose the south, and will probably lose states like Ohio and Pennsylvania that have a large number of the culturally conservative “Reagan Democrats.” If, however, economics and equality of economic opportunity dominate the campaign, then the Reagan Democrats come back into the fold, we win the midwest industrial states, and the gap in the South narrows dramatically. An out of work Southerner is more likely to care about who is going to help him find a job than about what two guys in Massachusetts are doing in the privacy of their home.

  5. MDtoMN on

    First of all – Maryland and Washington DC are not part of the South. They are less similar to the South than Ohio. While we certainly have rural areas with a Southern Flavor, the temperment of people is more similar to the midwest or Appalachia. Social Conservatives in Maryland are more libertarian than authoritarian, they embrace conservatism personally but hesitate at enforcing it for others. This quite different from the more authoritarian social conservatism of the South, where people are actually less conservative personally but love enforcing their values on others.
    Second, we shouldn’t write off the South, but I think it’s true that we need to simply focus on a message that will resonate broadly with the electorate. Specifically, Democrats have PROVEN they’re the social Liberals, and they have solidified their base areas – The NorthEast, Chicago, Mid-Atlantic, and West Coast. Now the message needs to be the one that resonates EVERYWHERE – about the economy and security and pleasing code words for personal liberty. Just as Bush never openly says he wants to outlaw abortion, we don’t have to say we’ll protect gay rights. We just need to say it so that our base knows we’ll do it.
    Third – Trying to win the entire South would require compromises on issues that would put our safe base back in play, which isn’t a good idea. Democrats cannot compromise enough on Social Issues, Economic Issues, Environmental issues, race, etc to win Utah or Alabama. We shouldn’t even try, because doing so would hurt us everywhere else. We just need to focus on a message the will resonate in those states that are truly swing states, and then we’ll take parts of the South too.
    Fourth – I wonder if we still need a Southerner on the Ticket. There was a time when people across the Country felt that a Liberal, Northeastern elite was running the country in a way that contradicted their values. I think that fundamentally made NortherEasterners non-starters. However, I think that time is passing. Partially because the NorthEast no longer is culturally dominant. Partially because the emerging dominance of Southern Values is beginning to alienate many people who are seeing them for what they really are. Partially because the South is less Southern with every year. Partially because the NorthEast has tempered its more extreme Liberals while basic liberal values have spread farther through the electorate.
    Maybe it won’t be this election, but North Easterners won’t lose forever.

  6. Kathleen on

    “A guy like Dean, because of his folksy manner and “straight-talking” reputation, culturally actually seems like a Midwesterner. Whereas Kerry’s every bone shouts Yankee elitist.”
    Southerners don’t vote purely on how one speaks. They have issues that are very important to them. Values is a biggie, and faith is another. Dean addressed neither of these. Another thing that Southerners value is military service – they actually see this as a mark of patriotism and love of country. Kerry shines in this regard.
    Dean’s foibles when he tried to incorporate a faith message were disasterous. Yes, TNR was right to point out that Dean’s lack of a faith message was going to play poorly in the south, but trying to force himself to do it was even worse.

  7. greg on

    All this talk about “the south” tends to leave out Maryland and Washington, DC. The democrats need their definitely southern electoral votes. The democrats might want to write off South Carolina this time around but it qwouldn’t hurt them to remind voters everywhere that they do routinely win some southern presidential elections.

  8. jon on

    The GOP keeps the South ‘safe’ by getting people to vote culture over economics. The best way for the Democrats to win OUTSIDE of the South is to force the GOP to keep embracing Southern cultural symbols like Bob Jones University, Pat Robertson, Stars and Bars, Etc.
    In other words, if the GOP isn’t scared about loosing the South, it will hide its agenda in a moderate package and coast to victory.
    This whole thread seems like a dangerous delusion to make ourselves feel better about our likely nominee.

  9. Marty L. on

    Two separate points here. DR and Frankly are absolutely correct that “the South” should not be ignored for purposes of crafting a message and an agenda, because the message that would appeal in the South would also likely appeal to swing voters in swing states (e.g., Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, Florida).
    But then there’s the separate question of where the Party and its candidates ought to spend their precious time and money. And, as to that question, I think a very good argument can be made that resources should not be squandered on unwinnable states — although there’s also the counterargument that virtually abandoning a campaign in a Southern State means that Bush can devote more of his reources to swing states, too.

  10. Steve Cohen on

    Couple of points:
    1. The south has more electoral votes than it did when it was solidly Democratic (and the North has fewer). So the margin is less than it used to be. I still think Ruy is basically right on this, but it’s a pretty close thing.
    2. Another way to think about what Ruy said is that some of “the South” is geographically located in Northern states. (Southern Ohio, Southern Indiana, parts of Michigan, etc.)
    3. Howard Dean does not “seem like a Midwesterner”, whatever his virtues are. He sounds like what he is, a New Yorker. I think the importance of this is overstated. Kerry was a Vietnam war hero. They won’t be able to pull the Dukakis tank thing on him. And if they try, Bush has even more vulnerability on the issue.

  11. Robert on

    The South is not a static object, yet the most dynamic area of the nation. The South is experiencing demographic and economic changes which will result in a more middle class, more suburbania, more multi-racial South with more woman’s rights.
    In time, unless the GOP changes as well, the South could look more like the rest of the country, and almost certainly will. And given the Democrats solid control of the North East and West Coast this plays in thier advantage.

  12. space on

    I hate to be impolite, but this seems like a bit of a straw man argument. Or perhaps it is just an attempt to concede the argument without looking like you are doing so?
    I don’t recall anyone arguing that we should “write off” the South. The debate has always been about emphasis: to what degree should the Democrats focus on the South?
    The conventional wisdom in many circles is that the Democrats simply cannot win the White House without at least 1 Southerner on the ticket, preferably in the top slot. And doubling up, like Clinton and Gore, is not a bad option either.
    Increasingly, some people (myself included) have taken exception to this CW. We have argued that the emphasis should be on picking solid candidates. If a potential nominee is viewed particularly poorly in any region of the country, including the South, that should raise a red flag. But putting undue emphasis on geography is a serious error.
    It should be noted that the GOP never seems to have a freak out over appealing to Northerners (My God, how will this play in Boston?). They pick who they want (Bush) and craft a message that will appeal outside of his base of support (compassionate conservatism).
    Should the Democrats be focusing on states like Ohio? Of course. But last time I checked, Ohio is not part of the South. And people in Ohio (or Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, or Colorado) will vote for a Northeasterner. It’s just a matter of presentation. A guy like Dean, because of his folksy manner and “straight-talking” reputation, culturally actually seems like a Midwesterner. Whereas Kerry’s every bone shouts Yankee elitist. Similarly, Edwards has the demeanor of a Southerner but Clark’s intellectualism, liberal positions, speaking style and non-accent would make the general’s homefield advantage non-existant in the general election…even though I think he would be the strongest candidate overall.
    “Don’t forget the south, but the way to the south lies outside it”
    I guess this is as close to a concession of the argument as I can expect.


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