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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

More On Winning Southern Moderates

Georgian Ed Kilgore of New Donkey follows up on DR’s recent posts (see Feb. 20 and 23 below) on Democratic prospects among white moderates in the south. Kilgore offers some clarifying insights about the weakness of Kerry’s and Gore’s messages for southern voters in 2000 and 2004:

Personalities aside, the biggest difference between Clinton ’96 and Gore ’00 had to do with how each candidate dealt with two sets of issues: culture, and role-of-government–both big “trust” issues in the South. Clinton was thoroughly progressive, but went well out of his way to make it clear that he wanted abortion to be “safe, legal and rare,” that he supported a modest gay rights agenda because everyone who “worked hard and played by the rules” should be treated the same; and that he fought to maintain and even expand the social safety net on condition that it truly represented a “hand up, not a handout.”…in general, Clinton’s whole ’96 message was that he was willing to reign in government’s excesses, while fighting to defend its essentials–the famous M2E2 (Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment).
Compare that message to Gore’s, and you go a long way towards understanding why the guy lost nearly half of Clinton’s southern white support. Gore was forever bellowing about partial-birth abortion legislation (supported by about three-fourths of southerners) representing a dire threat to the basic right to choose. While Clinton called for “mending, not ending” affirmative action, Gore pledged to defend every aspect of affirmative action with his life. Clinton talked about balancing gun ownership rights with responsibilities. Gore talked about national licensing of gun owners. Clinton talked about making government “smarter, not bigger.” Gore never mentioned his own role in the “reinventing government” initiative, and boasted an enormous policy agenda that added up to a message that he wanted to expand government as an end in itself.
…Kerry tried to avoid Gore’s mistakes on specific cultural and role-of-government issues, but never talked about these themes more than occasionally, and never came across with any kind of authenticity in his efforts to project himself as a man of faith, a hunter, a government-reformer, or a family guy. While Gore got killed by his positioning and the lack of a compelling message, Kerry got killed by the lack of a compelling message and by those personal characteristics–distorted and exaggerated by GOP propaganda–that made him seem alien to southern voters.

Rightly or wrongly, both Kerry and Gore wrote off the south in their campaign strategies. But demographic trends, such as the rapid increase of African American and Hispanic voters and continuing reverse migration may well put some southern states back in play by 2008 — especially with a more thoughtful strategy targeting southern moderates.