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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Don’t Ignore the Moderates!

by Scott Winship
Let me first thank the managing editor for inviting me into this forum. No, in all seriousness, I’m injecting myself into this discussion both because I want to evaluate Schaller’s thesis in light of the election results and in order to offer a bit of criticism that — if we’re lucky — might provoke a fight among the roundtable discussants. This has been far too much of a love fest to this point. Ezra, did you hear what Schaller said about your mother?
Seriously though, the absence here of a stronger critic of Tom isn’t for lack of trying. Not one, but two critics of the “forget the South” strategy initially agreed to participate, only to fail to produce in the end. For those wanting more balance, criticism of Tom’s thesis may be found here, here, and here. Tom replies to them here and here. With that said, let’s see where things stand after the election.
Senate. Two-thirds of the Democrats’ new majority is built on the 18 states with two Democratic senators (counting Lieberman and Sanders as Democrats for convenience). Just one of these states is in the South (Arkansas). The remaining Democrats come from 15 states with one senator from each party, and two of those states are from the South. In sum, the South contributes 4 senators to the Democrats’ majority, and of the six seats we picked up on Tuesday, only Webb was a southerner. Finally, among the 2008 seats that are clearly winnable, at most two are from the South (those of John Warner and Lamar Alexander). So while it remains the case that Democrats would not have won the Senate without their four southern senators, in 2008 there is a strong possibility that seats in non-southern states will give us a majority even before counting the southern ones.
House. Of the 16 states where Democrats made up more than half the delegation prior to Tuesday, just two were southern. In contrast, of the 30 states where they made up less than half the delegation, eight were southern. Out of the 30 Democratic pick-ups that had been called as of this writing, just 3 were southern. Fifty-three out of the 231 Democratic seats are now from the South. If the Democratic Party were equally competitive in the South as outside the region, that figure would be 69 seats. Without our southern representatives, the Party would not have the majority it won on Tuesday, but obviously we can reach a majority even with our currently poor performance in the South.
Governorships. There are now 28 Democratic governors, just two of whom are southern (Bredesen in Tennessee, and now Beebe in Arkansas). Five of the six pick-ups were outside the South. So we’d have just over half the governorships without the South.
State Houses. Going into the elections, the Republicans controlled both houses of 20 state legislatures, while Democrats controlled both houses of 19. But now 24 state legislatures are fully under Democratic control (five of them southern), compared with just 16 for the GOP. None of the houses that changed hands were in the South. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that Democrats increased their 21-seat advantage to… 647 seats! And only 7 percent of this gain came from the South.
In sum, I think the mathematics of Tom’s argument is unimpeachable. So there’s strike three for fight-provoking responses.
But let me shift tacks. As a New Democrat, I was initially nervous about Tom’s thesis because I thought he was saying Democrats don’t have to appeal to moderates. I then realized that he wasn’t so much arguing that we not appeal to moderates as he was arguing that we not justify such a strategy by citing the need to win in the South. I wouldn’t disagree with this advice, but it’s a much more subtle message than “We don’t have to appeal to moderates.” In practice, I worry that many liberals will miss the subtlety and draw the conclusion that is most convenient for their ideological views.
But of course, the biggest improvement Democrats saw this year was among moderates and Independents. My boss, Bill Galston, and Elaine Kamarck have persuasively shown that Democrats have to win a supermajority of moderates in order to win presidential elections, given the number of liberals and conservatives in the electorate. In future elections, when the GOP hasn’t driven down its favorability numbers through corruption and an unpopular war, it will be considerably more difficult to maintain congressional majorities or win the presidency. I worry that dissing the South will translate into ignoring rural and religious voters in general.
Put another way, one could argue that running a New Democrat for president might win all the states that a more liberal candidate would win, plus southern states (plus Ohio!). Bill Clinton won Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee twice, and he won Florida and Georgia once each. It’s unlikely that Clinton put much energy into developing a southern strategy, and his own southern roots surely accounted for part of his success, but his overall New Democrat platform was also appealing to enough swing voters that he was able to win a majority of voters in some pretty red states.
So I guess my question for Tom is: Would you object to the alternate slogan, “Ignore the South, but Don’t Ignore Moderates or the Possibility of Winning the South.” Aside from the fact that it’s the most unwieldy phrase I’ve ever written.

Scott Winship is the managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.

3 comments on “Don’t Ignore the Moderates!

  1. Scott on

    David,
    You are absolutely correct about the # of Democratic governorships and Southern governorships. I apparently misread the election map I examined and counted as in the Dem column only the two states where Dem governors were elected in November (rather than adding the sitting governors in the other Southern states). I then subtracted 2 from 28 to get a non-Southern majority of 26. Dumb, dumb mistake. Where was my editor? I’ll acknowledge the error on the Daily Strategist blog.
    I disagree with your characterization of my argument in the rest of your post. I wasn’t arguing the South was “irretrievably lost”, “a lost cause”, or “a spent force” — I was merely making a point about the mathematics of Schaller’s argument that Democrats can govern as a majority party w/o the South (mathematics that you correctly show were clearly wrong in the case of governors).
    Finally, I am most definitely not a “Schallerite”. I tend to think that while Schaller’s math is basically right, he’s fighting a straw man — who argues we should prioritize the South before our stronger states? — and his strategic advice that southerners can be ignored (attacked even!) in practice means losing lots of moderate-to-conservative non-Southern voters in rural areas that Democrats need.

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  2. David on

    “There are now 28 Democratic governors, just two of whom are southern (Bredesen in Tennessee, and now Beebe in Arkansas). Five of the six pick-ups were outside the South. So we’d have just over half the governorships without the South.”
    I’m unclear what states you count as “southern,” but going with the Old Confederacy, I count *five* Democratic governors, in VA, NC, LA, AR and TN. That doesn’t leave you with a majority of governorships outside the South, at least using ordinary math. Also, of the six states with Republican governors, four [SC, GA, AL, and MS] had Democrats as immediate predecessors, so depicting them as irretrievably lost to the Dems is a bit over the top.
    “State Houses. Going into the elections, the Republicans controlled both houses of 20 state legislatures, while Democrats controlled both houses of 19. But now 24 state legislatures are fully under Democratic control (five of them southern), compared with just 16 for the GOP. None of the houses that changed hands were in the South. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that Democrats increased their 21-seat advantage to… 647 seats! And only 7 percent of this gain came from the South.”
    Are you trying to tell us that because Democrats control both chambers in just five of eleven states, (and one chamber in another) that the Democratic cause in the South is a lost cause? The party controls both chambers in 19 of 39 nonsouthern states; scarcely better, even after a very good year for us. Yes, the party did better in legislative elections outside the South (in large part because of the bizarre situation in New Hampshire with its huge legislature)–but Democrats are hardly a spent force in the South. If this is an example of the “unimpeachable math” of the Schallerites, Lord help us.

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