Monday, November 08, 2004

Is the South Hopeless for Democrats?

While some Democrats continue to wax sanguine about the 2004 election results, arguing that a nip here and a tuck there and a little better performance among Hispanics everywhere could elect a Democratic president in 2008, I think it's safe to say that all of us are more than a little nervous about the skewing of the electoral battlefield in favor of the GOP. As Ron Brownstein persuasively argues today, Democrats start every presidential election at a serious disadvantage if they are simply playing defense in a host of "blue states" while trying to pick off one or two key "red states." And the perils of the electoral status quo are even more evident down-ballot, where it will be very difficult for Democrats to make gains in Senate, House, gubernatorial and state legislative races if they begin each cycle by conceding 30 states.

But where to go in expanding the battlefield? The most pressing question involves the South, where we've gotten skunked in two straight presidential elections, while losing a majority of statewide races from 2000 through 2004.

There is a legitimate argument that can be made that the whole region, with the exception of the quasi-southern state of Florida, has just gotten impossible, at least for the national party, and/or that the kind of issue positions necessary for success in the South would involve a sacrifice of party principle.

But I would remind Democrats that we've been here before, and that predictions of the Democratic Party's demise in the states of the Former Confederacy have been notoriously premature for four decades.

In presidential elections, the Democratic share of the popular vote dropped precipitously from 1960 to 1972. It rebounded dramatically in 1976, and then declined steadily through 1988, rebounding yet again in 1992 and declining steadily through 2004.

Down-ballot, the ebbs and flows of Democratic strength have been even more regular. As early as 1966, it looked like the party was toast throughout much of the region, but by 1970, Dems were winning most Senate and gubernatorial elections. 1980 was another year when obituaries were read for statewide Democratic candidates, who rebounded nicely in 1986. 1994 was a disaster; 1996 and 1998 showed a partial rebound.

The constant element in this drama has been the relative ability or inability of Democrats to build and rebuild biracial coalitions that drew on the loyal support of African-Americans, who make up about a fifth of Southern voters, combined with varying combinations that added up to roughly 40 percent of white voters. In the 1970s and the 1980s, Democrats managed to hold onto a significant share of rural white voters. In the 1990s, they improved their performance in the suburbs. The point is: so long as Democrats continue to earn the support of African-Americans (and part of that equation is to support African-American candidates in the South), it's not that big a stretch to get to 50 percent, and in the long run, certainly no harder than winning nearly half of white voters in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire with limited numbers of minority voters.

One example of why Democrats shouldn't give up on the South is this: in Georgia, in 2002, a now-legendary Republican blowout that defeated Sen. Max Cleland and Gov. Roy Barnes, two African-American centrist statewide candidates (Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Labor Commissioner Mike Thurmond), and two white centrist statewide candidates (Lt. Governor Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox), all won.

And this year, Southern Democrats did not exactly get destroyed in Senate races: with the exception of Oklahoma and a lopsided race in Georgia, Dems lost pretty narrowly in a tough year on tough terrain.

There's also reason to believe that time is on our side in the South, for several reasons:

1) The more the Republicans become the majority, governing party, the more they will have to defend their records in office (viz., a whole series of failed Republican governors in the region dating back to the 1960s).
2) There are a variety of slow but sure demographic and economic changes, including the growth of "knowledge industry" jobs, the rapid expansion of the Hispanic population, and a reversal of African-American outmigration, that favor Democrats in the region, as explained by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira in their 2000 book, the Emerging Democratic Majority.
3) The current Republican boom in southern exurbs will almost certainly be moderated by time; new suburbs are always heavily Republican, but invariably are influenced by fears about over-development; intra-GOP factional fights; and the gradual aging and diversification of population.

I am not arguing that national Democrats need to obsessively focus on the South, and I do not believe we have to nominate a southernor for president to become competitive there, though it clearly helps. But at a time when Democrats are rightly looking at the whole map and wondering where they can reverse the Red Tide, it's no time to "look away" from the South without considerable reflection.
-- Posted at 6:13 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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