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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Has the GOP’s Southern Hustle Peaked?

This item by J.P. Green was originally published on October 3, 2011.
Campbell Robertson’s New York Times article “For Politics in South, Race Divide Is Defining” scratches the surface of a trend Democrats should try to understand better.
Robertson focuses on Mississippi, the state where African Americans comprise the largest percentage of residents:

At a glance, Democrats may seem to be in better shape here than they are in neighboring states. Republicans won a supermajority in the Alabama Legislature in the 2010 elections and took over the Louisiana Legislature a month later as a result of several party switches, while Mississippi Democrats still control the State House of Representatives. Unlike in Louisiana, Democrats in Mississippi have actually managed to field candidates for a few statewide offices in this year’s elections, and hold the office of attorney general.
But the tale told by demographics is a stark one. Mississippi has, proportionally, the largest black population of any state, at 37 percent. Given the dependably Democratic voting record of African-Americans here, strategists in each party concede that Democrats start out any statewide race with nearly 40 percent of the vote.
…Merle Black, an expert on politics at Emory University in Atlanta, said that point is arguably already here. In 2008 exit polls, he pointed out, 96 percent of self-identified Republicans in Mississippi were white. Nearly 75 percent of self-identified Democrats were black. …Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Democratic support among whites could get any lower when, according to 2008 exit polls, only 6 percent of white males in Mississippi described themselves as Democrats.

The title of Robertson’s article is a little misleading. Robertson is not saying, as the title implies, that white southerners in the polling booth think, “Gee, I better vote Republican because I’m a white person.” Nor are African and Latino Americans voting Democratic at the polls solely because of their skin color. In reality, southerners vote more along the lines of their perceived economic interests.
People of color vote their real economic interests for the most part. The distortion in the south is more about the white working/middle class voters casting ballots against their own economic interests. This happens across the country to some extent, but it is more of a problem for Democrats in the south, where unions are weak and so-called “right-to-work” laws keep them that way.
Robertson notes that there are little pockets of Democratic strength in predominantly white communities throughout the south, with northeast Mississippi being a prime example. However, white progressives in the south are more concentrated in the big cities, closer-in suburbs and college towns.
Outside of the cities, most of the mainstream media targeting the working and middle class are conservative in policy outlook. Too many white voters in rural areas rarely hear or read a well-argued liberal opinion. Hopefully, MSNBC and the growth of the progressive blogospshere are beginning to change that. As income inequality continues to grow unabated, it’s not hard to imagine a tipping point at which southern whites will begin to question the wisdom of ever-increasing tax cuts for the rich and the party that pushes such policies as a panacea for all economic ills.
Robertson quotes Brad Morris, a Democratic strategist, on Democratic prospects, saying “We’ve hit rock bottom,” in the south, and I tend to agree. There’s just not much more room for growth of Republican political influence in the region, given current demographic parameters. And most of the demographic trends going forward favor Democrats.
The Republican echo chamber has been very successful in the south in terms of making demagogic attacks against Democratic candidates and policies stick. State Democratic Party organizations tend to be weaker and underfunded in the south and their messaging suffers as a result, while anti-union corporations in the south make sure Republicans have all the money they need. This is the heart of the GOP’s southern hustle.
President Obama’s victories in North Carolina, Virginia and Florida certainly suggest the Democrats should not write-off any southern states, as some have urged. With stronger candidates, Democrats can win more elections.
Looking to the future, Democrats are going to do better as a result of explosive growth of Latino and African Americans in the southern states. But there must also be more of a conscious effort on the part of state and local Democratic parties to recruit and train stronger candidates. Dems need more candidates of color to turn out these rapidly-growing demographic groups. But they also need more candidates, women in particular, who have white working-class roots and/or know how to reach white working families. With that commitment, a substantially more Democratic south in the not-too-distant future is a good bet.

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