By Thomas Schaller
Before the 2000 recount had even finished, George W. Bush’s pollster Matthew Dowd approached Bush adviser Karl Rove with some surprising news. As recounted in Tom Edsall’s compelling new book, Building Red America, Dowd informed Rove that the center of the electorate had essentially collapsed. Moving forward, Rove concluded, the fight between the two major parties would be a struggle to mobilize and expand their respective bases. Faster than you can say, “I’m a uniter, not a divider,” Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was shelved in favor of divide-and-conquer politics because, in the polarized America of the early twentieth century, that approach at least offers “conquer” as a possible outcome.
How should Democrats respond to these emergent realities? In kind. As the more progressive of the two major parties, that means starting to rebuild toward a national majority by focusing on the nation’s more liberal and progressive elements, moving toward the moderate voters next, and leaving the most conservative elements in the most conservative states in the nation’s most conservative region–the South–for last. As I argue in my book, Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South, there is a Democratic majority to be created by maximizing the Democrats’ control in the existing blue states of the Northeast and Pacific Coast, converting the purple states of the Midwest to blue, and purpling the increasingly competitive red states of the Interior West. Put another way, to regain national majority power on the presidential, congressional and state-level, Democrats should figure out how to win Arizona or even Alaska, before thinking about Alabama.
A common criticism I receive about the feasibility of Democrats winning with a non-southern strategy is that the South is not a homogeneous monolith–that there are many pockets of the South that are quite progressive or at least not ardently conservative in their religious-cultural sensibilities and, additionally, that there are many non-southerners who share those conservative sensibilities.
This is undeniably true, in part because regional distinctions are blurring with each passing day as Americans in our mobile society move into and out of the South and other regions, and as immigrants from various parts of the world populate a wide range of states in every region. The permeability of American culture in the media age; the propensity of Americans to change jobs and careers (and thus geographic location); and a general homogenization of society–all of these trends suggest that the South (or any other region) will be less distinct two generations from now, just as it is less distinct today than it was two generations ago.
All that said, there is both a weak and a strong case to be made for why Democrats are, based on differences in regional demography, far better served by focusing last on the South. The distinction between the weak and strong cases is temporal: The weak case is that, right now, the South is demographically less amenable to Democratic success; the strong case is that, moving forward into the foreseeable future and based on demographic projections, the South will remain least amenable and on some counts become even less so.
The weak case is easy to make, and the strong case is not much harder to defend. Let’s look at some of the differences in regional demography, with the implications for ideological tendencies and partisan behavior. I cannot distill in this post all or even part of the data contained in the book’s fifth chapter, and so the explanations here will lack specifics and details. But the underlying data, along with charts and figures and sources, is available in the book.
Gender: Democrats do better among women than men, a fact that is true among all voters, and even when African Americans are held aside. But in the South, especially among white voters, the “gender gap” is close to nil. There were five states in 2004 where Kerry did not enjoy a gender gap, either because he broke even or did worse among women than men; three of those five were in the South. Kerry won white women nationally by three points, but lost white women by 11 points in the South. The fact is that a gender chasm would have to open up in the South for the Democrats’ advantages among women to make much difference, because women–and specifically white women–vote very similarly to their fathers and brothers, husbands and sons. This is far less true outside the South, which accounts for and produces the gender gap nationally. Women, who are already a majority of college graduates and law school students, continue to further feminize the American electorate with each passing election cycle. This trend generally bodes well for Democrats in the near and medium term, and especially outside the South where the gender gap is real and demonstrable.
Race: Democrats win among every major non-European ethnic minority in America, save Cuban-Americans. The Democrats’ share of support is particularly high among African Americans (about 90%), Native Americans (80-90%), and Latinos (60%, but a growing worry in the Bush era). Even Asian Americans, who favored Bush41 over Clinton by 24 points in 1992, went for Kerry over Bush by 17 points in 2004. Holding aside African Americans for a moment, notice that the most of the geographic concentration for these groups is non-southern—almost exclusively for Native Americans and Asian Americans and, but for Florida and Texas, Latinos as well. Half of African Americans live in the South, but the sad irony is that some of the blackest states vote Republican by overwhelming rates. (Note the statewide officials who represent Mississippi, the blackest state in the Republic.) As for whites, Al Gore carried the white vote outside the South in 2000, and Kerry came close to doing so in 2004. George W. Bush (70%) and Ronald Reagan (71%) got basically the same share of the southern white vote, but Bush won narrowly whereas Reagan won in a landslide. Why? Because there are fewer white voters overall, and Kerry did far better among non-southern whites than Walter Mondale did. Democrats do not have a white voter problem generally; what they specifically have is a southern white voter problem. As Native Americans are mobilized, Latinos achieve citizenship and voting-age eligibility, the strong case for a non-southern majority grows stronger. In the South, however, the African American share of the southern population has been shrinking: Nine of the 11 southern states had higher shares of African Americans in 1950 than they do today–and a tenth, Louisiana, just witnessed a major displacement of its largest African-American community in the wake of Katrina.
Age: Democrats got a real boost in 2004 from young voters, not only because they voted strongly Democratic (as they often do) but because turnout among voters 18-25 (or 18-30) increased dramatically over 2000 rates. Kerry won the youth vote nationally by nine points, despite losing it by one point in the South. On the other end of the life cycle, Democrats have traditionally done well among seniors (Gore won them, but Kerry lost them). What’s more, the next generation of seniors includes the post-Baby Boomers who are more socially liberal than their parents, as authors like Leonard Steinhorn have shown. There are plenty of Snow Belt retirees in the warm southern climates, sure. But get this: Moving forward, the projected growth rate for 65+ populations will be faster in the eight Interior West states than the South between now and 2020. The Midwest will lag behind the South’s aging population growth, however, and so the hope for turning this purple region blue will be hard to actualize on the strength of senior votes.
Religion: The media talks incessantly about the political power of the evangelicals, who constitute roughly 24% of the country. Yet they rarely mention that the share of people who are self-described agnostics/atheists/non-denominational has doubled from eight percent in 1990 to 14% in 2001 and, based on that trend, surely has reached 15% or 16% today. This transformation is the result of the steady replacement of older, more religious voters with younger, more secular voters. Yet the South remains, as ever, the most religious region of America. Perhaps the inter-regional variances in religiosity and church attendance will diminish somewhat over time, but not much. That said, the more libertarian and less religiously conservative West is far less amenable to Republicans’ religious-based appeals, and in fact the growing dominance by evangelicals of western Republican parties is pulling them far too far to the right, providing a huge opportunity for Democrats that is already being exploited in places like Colorado. (But I recommend Ryan Sager’s analyses in Elephant in the Room for more about the self-destruction of western Republican parties.)
Family/marital status: Half of all women and almost half of men in America are unmarried. Because married voters turn out at higher rates, the unmarried are still a minority of voters nationally. Despite the emphasis on the importance of family values, the regional situation here is murkier because the divorce rates and share of unmarried persons are unusually high in the South, a fact that is true even when African Americans are subtracted out. But the key point is that “women on their own” (which means as-yet unmarried, divorced, separated, widowed and lesbian women) cast almost one in four votes nationally, and soon will be above that 25% threshold. And Democrats do well–Kerry won unmarried women by 25 points–among this growing bloc of key voters. As with age, the regional effects on marital status are not particularly pronounced, with one notable exception related to race: the rates of interracial marriage, which I submit indicate a potential for Democrats’ multi-racial coalition calculus. And, not surprisingly, given the shares of statewide non-white populations, the relative rate of interracial marriage rates is lowest in the South. As 2000 Census data make very clear, mixed-race marriages are more prevalent between Asians and whites, and Latinos and whites, than blacks and whites.
Occupation and socioeconomic class: The South has long been, and remains today, the least unionized region of the country. In the past half-century, the southern state with the highest share of union members/families was Alabama, which peaked at twenty-eighth; most southern states have been ranked and continue to rank in the forties, with the two Carolinas battling for a half-century for the inauspicious title of least-unionized state. The reason this matters is that the one exception to the Republican tendencies of non-college white males today is when they are union members or from union families. As the much-cited study by Andrew Gelman and his colleagues at Columbia show, in blue states the rich do not vote as Republican as red-state rich persons do. In the South, however, once African Americans are removed, that relationship between class and partisanship is mitigated—not because richer southern whites vote less Republican, but because poorer whites vote more Republican. Whether voting pocketbooks or prayer books, the result is millions of Republican white votes. This phenomenon is fading and should continue to as “new South” economic changes equalize income and wealth, and as non-native southerners move into the region for those “new South” opportunities. But profound wealth disparities in the South that might otherwise produce more Democratic votes in the nation’s poorest region are muted by cultural conservatism that results in Republican support among poorer whites that approaches the support among richer whites.
Community of residence: Turning to rural-urban-suburban-exurban trends, there is significant suburban growth in certain pockets of the South, the nation’s most rural region. But the key growth in “progressive-centrist” and inner suburban communities, as rigorously chronicled by the Strategist co-editor Ruy Teixeira, is occurring in and around cities west of the Mississippi River. (See Chapter 3 of Teixeira and John Judis’s book, The Emerging Democratic Majority.) There are emerging suburbs in the South that hold great promise for Democrats in the medium and longer term, however. Here is one criterion on which the weak (present) case is more compelling than the strong, long-term case. Still, places like Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, Northern Virginia and Austin remain rare, and the locals do not always take kindly to the changes occurring around them. Native North Carolinians have created their own acronym for Cary, the bedroom community filled with transplants who came to work in the hospitals, universities and research parks in this “progressive-centrist” mecca–Contaminated Area: Relocated Yankees. That tells us a lot about the meaning of progressive-centrist growth in the South and its implications for a Democratic majority.
A final comment about the combined effects of these overlapping criteria: The near- and long-term changes that are both occurring now and should continue to accelerate in the future are happening faster in “Rim South” states like Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Texas. Thus, partisan opportunities in the South will generally arise first in the Rim South before the Deep South. As I’ve written elsewhere, the Mark Warner-Tim Kaine elections in Virginia prove the point. Despite the attempt by self-interested consultants to depict Warner’s win as a testament to a Democratic revival among rural voters, the truth is that both Warner and especially Kaine won because of changes occurring in the urban-suburban corridor that connects the Washington suburbs, Richmond and Norfolk.
Overall, then, in a country that is becoming less white, more feminized, less traditional in its family structures, more secular and more suburbanized, how does it make sense to prioritize the targeting of what are often referred to as the “NASCAR men”: white, non-college-educated, rural, married, Christian men from the South? If a marketing executive explained the prevailing national trends and concluded that the company ought to target the consumers least likely to be interested in the company’s product–and worse, that their size within the market was shrinking with each passing day–he’d be instructed to clean out his desk by day’s end.
Following his candidate’s popular vote defeat in 2000, Karl Rove promptly announced that the GOP would find and cultivate the four million evangelicals who failed to turn out. The politics that has followed–epitomized by the anti-gay-marriage ballot measures and Supreme Court appointments–confirms the effectiveness of the Rovian approach. So how is it that Democrats, upon losing the popular vote in 2004, must turn their opponents’ base by focusing on southern white men and women? This is absurd advice, and strategically myopic.
The truth is that the Pollyannaish predictions of centrist consultants have not served the Party well. In 2004, Democrats gained outside the South while losing ground inside the South, and at every level: relatively in presidential returns, and absolutely in terms of seats won in both chambers of Congress and in the state legislatures. That same pattern is already prevailing in the 2006 midterms, too, where the vast majority of expected gains for Democrats in gubernatorial and congressional races will come from outside the South.
There’s an underlying reason why: The demographic situation is different inside and outside the South. The split is neither perfect nor uniform, of course, but it is what it is, and denying it only risks losing the non-southern majority that awaits a party gutsy enough to build it. As regional demographic differences both present and future show, there’s a non-southern Democratic majority right in front of our noses, if the party will show the guts to see and seize it.
Dr. Thomas F. Schaller is associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), and a board member of the Democratic Strategist. A political columnist for the Washington Examiner, Schaller has published commentaries in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, Salon.com, and The American Prospect, and has appeared on ABC News, MSNBC, National Public Radio, and C-SPAN.