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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Crunch Time for Southern Electoral Votes

Bob Moser makes the case about as good as it can be made, so his pre-convention Salon post “How Democrats can take back the South,” along with Thomas Schaller’s response, is a must-read for Dems focused on electoral vote strategy. The debate also has implications for the veepstakes in both major parties.
Moser’s Salon piece is based on his new book, “Blue Dixie: Awakening the South’s Democratic Majority,” which has gotten a “highly recommended” review from Publisher’s Weekly. A couple of nut graphs on southern demographic shifts from his Salon post provide a taste:

Thanks to a historic “re-migration” of millions of African Americans back South, combined with the country’s fastest growing Hispanic population, the political potency of Southern whites has started to shrivel. From 1990 to 2005, the white population percentage dropped in every Southern state — and in many places, the change portended revolutionary political shifts. The state of Texas is now officially “majority minority,” with large chunks of the South following suit. Georgia went from more than 70 percent white to less than 60 percent just between 1990 and 2005. Nashville, of all places, has been dubbed America’s “new Ellis Island” due to its large influx of not only Hispanics, but Kurds and Somalians (among others). These seismic demographic shifts, which the Census Bureau expects to accelerate over the next few decades, mean — among a world of other things — that the Democrats’ “threshold” of white votes needed to win Southern states (in Mississippi, for instance, it’s 31 percent with average black turnout) will keep falling for the foreseeable future.
The Southern swing voters of the future — and of 2008, at least in the closely competitive states of Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida — bear scant resemblance to the Bigfoot of yore. That’s not simply because fewer of them are Caucasian: It’s also because white Southerners’ political attitudes are undergoing a profound generational shift. The backlash whites, their anti-liberal politics forged in the ’60s and whipped to a froth by the GOP’s wedge issues in almost every election since, are losing members by natural attrition every day. (Rev. Falwell and Jesse Helms, RIP.) Younger Southerners — and the millions of college-educated Yankees who’ve migrated south for bigger houses and better jobs in recent decades — hold more moderate views on cultural and “moral” issues than their elders did. They support withdrawal from Iraq and strong environmental policies. And on economic issues, they lean populist: Like black Southerners, most whites in Dixie now support government action to reduce income inequities; increased regulation of business; more spending on education, Social Security and healthcare; and higher taxes to help the poor.

Moser is more concerned with long-range strategy here than how the Dems will do in southern states on November 4. Schaller’s response focuses more on Moser’s embrace of “economic populism” as a wedge that can help Dems in the south. Schaller argues,

…Economic populism tends to be more useful politically in the post-globalization Rust Belt, or the new growth economies of the Far West, than in the South. Though the South is the nation’s poorest region and millions of Southerners of all races are hurting financially, the conclusion reached by many demographic analysts, myself included, is that the deep-seated social conservatism and widespread resistance to race-blind redistribution in the South serve as powerful bulwarks against the curative effects of economic populism.
…Unfortunately, the prescriptions Moser offers in “Blue Dixie” are closer to overstated hopes, often based on anecdotal evidence contradicted by broader patterns or wholesale data. If economic populism were an untapped electoral reservoir in the South, Southern state budgets would not be among the lowest per capita in the country, unions would not be weaker than in any other region, and working-class white Southerners would already be joined at the hip with working-class black Southerners as the backbone of the most Democratic region in America. But these are not Southern political realities, and wishing them so will not make them so.

Schaller concedes that the Dems have a shot at winning Virginia and elsewhere he has included Florida as a possibility. But he sees Dem resources poured into winning the electoral votes of other southern states as a waste. On balance, he may be right for this cycle, although Georgia is a possibility if Obama picks Nunn and Bob Barr runs strong.
I think he overstates his case, however, in arguing that the 2006 elections indicate Dems have limited prospects for winning congressional, state and local elections in the south. He argues that “85 percent of all new-seat gains in Senate, House, gubernatorial and state legislative races in 2006 came outside the 11 states of the former Confederacy.” Those 11 southern states are 22 percent of the states. If they account for 15 percent of new gains, that’s a little short, but hardly hopeless. And even if Obama loses all the southern states electoral votes, the increased African American registration should help Dem congressional, state and local candidates. Further, as Ed Kilgore noted of the ’06 elections,

In a quirk of the electoral calendar, only five Senate seats were up in the South (accepting Schaller’s definition of “the South” as the 11 states of the old Confederacy), four held by Republicans. Democrats won two, for a net gain of one senator, which is a perfectly proportional contribution to the conquest of the Senate. Similarly, there were six gubernatorial contests in the South, five in seats held by Republicans. Democrats won two for a net gain of one, again a proportional contribution to the national results. (Democrats also won the single Southern governor’s races held in 2004 and in 2005, which means they now control five of the 11 executive offices.)

At present, Democrats hold majorities of both houses of the state legislatures in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina and West Virginia (and one House in TN and KY), as well as the governorships of Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Dems hold two U.S. Senate seats in both Arkansas and West Virginia, and one each in Virginia, Florida and Louisiana.
Schaller’s position on southern electoral votes gets some support from the latest poll by The Charlotte Observer/NewsChannel 36, which indicates that 43 percent of North Carolinians believe McCain would be a better president, compared to 38 percent for Obama. McCain’s 5 percent advantage increased when respondents were all registered voters. As Taylor Batten concludes in his Charlotte Observer report on the poll,

By most estimates, John Kerry won no more than a third of the white vote in North Carolina in 2004, according to exit polls. If Obama were to win 30 percent of the white vote and 95 percent of the black vote in North Carolina, blacks would have to make up about 31 percent of the electorate for him to win. They represent less than 21 percent of all registered voters.

Still, Dems are not giving up NC, as Katharine Q. Seelye reports in her New York Times update on Obama’s NC campaign:

Mr. Obama has spent more than $1.9 million on television commercials here since mid-June. He has opened 16 offices in the state since early July…His blueprint calls for deploying 625 teams, of four to six volunteers each, to blanket the state’s 2,762 electoral precincts. So far, more than half the teams are in place, each with captains who are committed to contributing at least 10 hours a week. Almost 6,000 volunteers are actively engaged to some degree…Obama headquarters in Chicago would not confirm the number of paid staff members it had in the various states, but the number in North Carolina is believed to be close to the estimated 150 it has deployed in another battleground state, Missouri, where Mr. McCain is two points ahead.

Regarding NC voter participation demographics, Seelye adds,

In 2000, blacks made up 17.3 percent of the vote, and in 2004 they made up 18.6 percent, according to the state elections board. To win this year, by Mr. Jensen’s calculations, Mr. Obama needs blacks to make up 23 percent of the electorate while also winning at least 35 percent of the white vote. Others say he may need more.
So far, the rate of black registration (up 9.8 percent over 2004) is outpacing white registration (up 4.6 percent), but at the current rate blacks would make up only 20 percent of the electorate.

And, although both Gore and Kerry received no electoral votes in the 11 southern states, Dick Polman notes in the Athens Banner-Herald,

…No Democrat ever has won the presidency without capturing some Southern states. This year, the Old Confederacy holds 153 electoral votes. Nationwide, there are 538 electoral votes on the table. Do the math. If Obama cedes Dixie, he has to win 72 percent of the electoral votes everywhere else. And that’s one reason Howard Dean, the party chairman, has long been touting the importance of a “50-state strategy” to ensure a broader playing field.

Meanwhile the Obama campaign continues to invest heavily in VA, NC, GA and FL at the expense of close campaigns in other swing states. We can be sure only that Obama’s southern strategy is a major gamble that will go down as a colossal blunder or a stroke of genius.

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