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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Is Obama’s Southern Strategy Sound ?

Thomas F. Schaller’s July 1 New York Times article “The South Will Fall Again” makes a strong case that the Obama campaign would be wise not to invest much time and resources into winning electoral votes in “the 11 states of the former Confederacy.” Schaller admits that Virginia and Florida are exceptional cases that Obama can hope to win on November 4th. But he pretty much disses the idea that the electoral votes of other southern states are in play.
Schaller relies on ’04 election data to prove his point. Only in 3 of the 11 southern states , FL, AR and VA, did Kerry cut Bush’s margin of victory below 10 percent. And only in FL did Kerry come within 5 percent of winning. Demographics have changed somewhat during the last 4 years, with a large Hispanic influx into the region and northern job-seekers emigrating south. But it’s unclear how much this would benefit Democrats.
Schaller cites aggregate statistics indicating the Black voter turnout in the 11 southern states is proportional to the population, “17.9 percent of the age-eligible population and 17.9 percent of actual voters in 2004.” He offers the example of Mississippi to illustrate that “the more blacks there are in a Southern state, the more likely the white voters are to vote Republican.”
In their May 16 NYT article “In the South, a Force to Challenge the G.O.P.,” Adam Nossitor and Janny Scott point out:

In one black precinct in the town of Amory, Miss., the number of voters nearly doubled, to 413, from the Congressional election in 2006, and this for a special election with nothing else on the ballot. Meanwhile, in a nearby white precinct, the number of voters dropped by nearly half.
A similar increase has been evident in Southern states with presidential primaries this year. In South Carolina, the black vote in the primary more than doubled from 2004, to 295,000, according to exit poll estimates. In Georgia, it rose to 536,000 from 289,000.
One expert on African-American politics, David A. Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, called those numbers “almost astounding.” Black turnout also shot up in states like Maryland, Virginia and Louisiana, even after Hurricane Katrina had driven many Louisianians out of state.

Schaller argues that even the most optimistic projections of Black turnout will not be enough to overcome the GOP advantage in the south. However, Schaller’s analysis doesn’t take recent polling trends into account. According to recent poll averages cited by Pollster.com, Obama is behind McCain 3.2 percent in FL, 5.3 percent in GA and 2.9 percent in NC, and Obama leads McCain by 1.4 percent in VA. Granted, early horse race polls are lousy predictors of what will happen in November, but they do give candidates some idea of how they are running. In light of these numbers, it doesn’t make much sense for Obama to “write off” NC or GA just yet, especially if he choses Sam Nunn as a running mate. It appears that his investment in those two states is good strategy at this stage.
Obama is not Kerry, who may have been the ideal candidate from the point of view of southern Republicans. Another consideration is that Republicans have a lot more to answer for this time around. And how well does Obama’s demonstrated ability to connect with young white voters play in the south? These are just a few of the issues Obama must consider in tweaking his southern strategy in the months ahead.

3 comments on “Is Obama’s Southern Strategy Sound ?

  1. Mike Stagg on

    I hope and pray that Obama follows his instincts and runs a 50-state campaign. Bill Clinton is the last Democratic nominee to spend money in my state (Louisiana) after the nominating convention. He’s also the last Democrat to get elected. I believe there’s a connection. African Americans make up about 34 percent of the population in Louisiana; they are 45 percent of the registered Democrats in our state and contribute far more than 50 percent of the votes that Democratic candidates get in local, state and national elections.
    Voter turnout in presidential elections in Louisiana historically run 15 percent higher than our gubernatorial elections. We can expect historically high turnout among African Americans in Louisiana and across the South. With a charismatic candidate and a strong message of change, I believe Barack Obama can forge the traditional Democratic formula for victory here — something north of 30 percent of white votes combined with 90 percent or so of African American votes.
    You can read more about voting patterns in Louisiana here: http://www.louisianad2d.us
    The challenge will be getting those white votes. That can happen if the Obama campaign spends money on their message here and across the South. It can’t happen if the message is not heard.
    Part of the reason for the rise of the Republican Party in states like Louisiana has been the vacuum left by the failure of our national tickets to bring their message here. The Republicans have stepped into that vacuum and have made some gains. Those gains are not permanent.
    I’m not arguing about spending money in the South at the expense of other regions, but of running the 50-state campaign that national parties were once built with and based on.

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  2. Christopher Carrington on

    I think Schaller is spot on. We should not waste precious resources on the old Confederacy. Our resources are better spent on developing the Democratic Party out West (e.g., Montana, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona). The only reasonable exception that I can see is Virginia, a state where the expanding Washington DC metro area is changing the demographics in a meaningful way. Let’s face the music here: it will be decades and perhaps never, before Appalachia will really be ready to embrace the new Democratic Party (i.e., a party committed to embracing racial diversity and equality, to achieving gender equality, to engaging the world as a team player and not an overlord, etc). I mean, has anyone noticed just how hostile West Virginia is to Obama?

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  3. aml on

    while the south may not be a the place to win electoral votes, there is opportunity to pick up marginal house districts and maybe even help on a senate seat or two. now the dems who would be swept into office may not be the progressives that some of us want to see, but they would certainly feel that they owed the new president something for his trouble of helping them get in…

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