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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

South Mouth

As a yellow-dog Democrat from Georgia, I am naturally interested in the ongoing debate about the future of our party in the South, a subject on which a lot of nonsense–ranging from claims that only southern Democrats can win the presidency, to arguments that Democrats should loudly demonize the allegedly atavistic region–often gets said and published.
This week there’s a burgeoning blogospheric debate revolving around the assumption that John Edwards’ southern background and accent uniquely enable him to get a hearing for progressive causes in the South. And that makes some people mad.
It started with a Ben Smith Politico comment on a John Edwards speech in Iowa suggesting that his rivals might have trouble going into certain parts of the country, which Smith interpreted as a citation of Edwards’ status as a southern white male.
At TAPPED, Ezra Klein jumped in with this observation:

Edward’s Southern accent and manners are critical in his ability to project a much more combative, sharp form of liberalism than the others are offering. What would sound like Marxism from the mouth of Howard Dean or Hillary Clinton sounds like good, old-fashioned, American populism from Edwards

At the same site, Paul Waldman suggested that both southerners themselves and national media elites think of us Crackers as more “authentically American,” giving Edwards a “Dixie Bonus.” And then Political Animal’s Kevin Drum, who says he’s feeling surly today, weighed in with an angry blast at the South’s “victim complex,” and its purported refusal to vote for anybody from “north of the Mason-Dixon line.”
Lord a-mercy. Can a post from Professor Tom “Whistling Past Dixie” Schaller be far behind?
Let’s hold our horses here, fellow bloggers, and at least examine the premise that Edwards has a big southern advantage over other Democratic candidates.

I raise the question not out of any animus towards Edwards; I like the guy; think he’s done an impressive job of combining a clear message with detailed policies; and am actually pretty happy with the Democratic field as a whole.
But let’s remember that in 2004, and against the expectations of the Kerry campaign, Edwards didn’t much help the ticket in the South. KE04 lost his home state by 12 points. No other southern state (outside Florida) wound up being really competitive. Sure, Veep candidates rarely have much impact, and the Kerry campaign gave up on the South in the homestretch. But still, there’s no evidence from 2004 that Edwards’ “southern accent and manners” made the party’s message more palatable in the region.
In the absence of state head-to-head general election polling, it’s impossible to tell if Edwards has an advantage over his Democratic rivals in the South today. In national general election polling, Edwards is doing pretty well–a bit better than Clinton–but not as well as Obama.
Edwards’ southernhood is germane not just to the ability to actually win southern states, but to help or at least not egregiously damage Democrats down-ballot. It is true, anecdotally at least, that if you talk to southern Democratic pols, a lot of them are convinced HRC would be a drag on the ticket down-ballot. And there’s certainly grounds for wondering if Obama, as the first African-American major-party nominee for president, would have particular issues in the South as well (though in my home state of Georgia, at least, Hispano-phobia seems to have soaked up virtually all the latently racist energies of white folks these days).
But that’s all speculation, and early speculation at that. The one thing we do have significant data on is Edwards’ relative appeal to Southern Democrats (and indies likely to vote in Democratic primaries) in at least one state, South Carolina. It is, moreover, his native state, next door to his adopted state, a state whose primary he won as a sunny centrist back in 2004, and a state where he has a robust list of local endorsements. In all but one recent SC poll, Edwards is running a relatively poor third to Obama and Clinton. And in fact, his numbers there are very similar to his numbers elsewhere in the country (including Florida, which does have a sizable southern-inflected population, especially along the Redneck Riviera of the Panhandle), with the exception of Iowa.
None of this is to suggest that Edwards can’t win the nomination, or that if he does win Iowa, his numbers in SC as elsewhere won’t rise, as they almost certainly would. But there’s just not much of a reason to assume he has a southern advantage, or can automatically sell a relatively left-bent message with southern syrup.
Now as in 2004, I do occasionally wonder if there’s something about John Edwards that does strike southerners themselves as “inauthentic.” He has a completely natural accent, and his rhetorical skills reflect a lot of time spent in Baptist churches listening to long sermons and dreaming of fried chicken. And even if his “son of a mill worker”‘ bio is getting old elsewhere, it remains resonant to many southerners, who, like me, have lots of family roots in the textile mills. The opulent house, the haircut gaffe, and a few other elitist-sounding slips (e.g., a casual remark in 2004 dissing the nutritional qualities of the fast-food chain Biscuitville) hurt him in the South as elsewhere, though wealth itself is not really a disadvantage (see Bush, George W.). And he does not seem to have quite the visceral cultural connection with African-Americans that Bill Clinton (and before him, Jimmy Carter) famously had. Maybe his long and sincere work on poverty issues can change that. Time will tell.
As for the Waldman proposition that being southern gives a politician extra points from northeasteren media elites–well, that one’s a little deep for me. In my personal experience, for every yankee journalist or political operative who thinks my accent and mannerisms are charming, there’s another who immediately assumes I’m a drooling idiot who probably wears a bedsheet on Saturday nights and handles snakes on Sunday.
So before Kevin Drum or anyone else gets mad at southerners and/or John Edwards himself for their supposed self-regardling insularity, let’s see some more evidence that it’s really true.

4 comments on “South Mouth

  1. Neil the Ethical Werewolf on

    Ed, you might be interested in seeing the SurveyUSA state head-to-head numbers that I posted on Ezra Klein’s blog a while ago. Only two Southern states are included — Kentucky and Virginia — but against Giuliani, Edwards outperforms both Obama and Hillary in both.
    Interestingly, Edwards’ tremendous area of strength appears to be the Midwest. He’s the only one who wins Missouri and Wisconsin, and he outperforms the others in Ohio, Iowa, and Minnesota.

  2. Matt on

    It’s absolutely not fair, but them’s the breaks in this brave new world of ours. I don’t want to start a talk about memes and how quickly they get amplified, but some of that thought is probably relevant here.
    How devastating was that video?
    You know where the mansion story started? In a little, right-wing agit-prop magazine called the Carolina Journal. It got bounced around the blogs, and then it hit the MSM.
    For whatever reason, this too-slick, inauthentic theme is an albatross around JRE’s neck right now. And frankly, I don’t know what he can do to get more Southern street cred short of crashing a stockcar at Lowes Motor Speedway. I mean, he actually is an up-from-the-bootstraps, public-school-educated, son-of-a-mill-worker, Southern, self-made millionaire.
    Another different point, and then I’ll stop. In the numbers that I’ve seen, the one candidate who consistently polls extremely well among self-identified liberals AND self-identified independents ain’t John Edwards. It’s Barack Obama.

  3. edkilgore on

    Your point is basically that Edwards doesn’t yet have the street cred–as a southerner, or as an “authentic” candidate–to overcome his “gaffes.”
    I tend to agree, though it hardly seems fair to the man.

  4. Matt on

    Personally, though I too like Edwards, I wonder about how his authenticity is perceived by the greater public at this point in his career.
    In ’04, I had a lot of neighbors in North Carolina who said plainly that they wouldn’t vote to reelect him. For them, his ambition was too naked. He made the jump into the presidential race too soon.
    Keep in mind, the other knock on him then was that he was too inexperienced for the office.
    Now, in 2007, Edwards’ lack of experience doesn’t really factor into the equation. Whether it is three more years in the public eye, or the fact that he spent twice as much time in the Senate as Barack Obama has currently served, I just don’t hear it come up.
    But all the knocks on Edwards lately have been about his lack of authenticity.
    “How dare he campaign on poverty issues when he spends hundreds of dollars on a hair cut!”
    “How can he make his announcement speech from New Orleans at the same time as when he’s building a brand new mansion?”
    “I feel pretty and witty and…”
    That’s not a knock you make against a “Southern” candidate. Even when Bill Clinton kept Air Force One on the tarmac for his appointment with Christophe, this authenticity thing wasn’t an issue for him. How is that gaffe worse than Edwards’?


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