Do Democrats need the South?

The party is doing fine, winning the Northeast, the West and the Midwest. So why is James Carville still pushing a Southern strategy?

Published November 14, 2006 1:10PM (EST)

If you look at a map of the 2006 election, you'll notice that the blue wave actually has a huge red Southern hole in it.

Five of the six Senate seats the Democrats picked up were outside the South. Five of the six new Democratic governors are from outside the South. Of the 30 or so House seats that Democrats wrested from Republicans, only five were Southern -- and two of those were gifts. Both Republican candidates were defending seats that had been held by disgraced pariahs - Mark Foley and Tom DeLay - and both were forced by the quirks of electoral law to run as write-ins. They still almost won.

The most telling races, however, were those in Tennessee and Georgia. In Tennessee, the Democrats fielded a nearly perfect Senate candidate, a smart, seasoned, well-financed congressman with strong name identification. Harold Ford Jr. ran hard to the right, talking incessantly about how powerful "my Jesus" was, filming a campaign ad in a church, boasting that he was pro-life, denouncing the New Jersey same-sex marriage ruling, and wearing a camouflage hunting cap on Election Day. He lost. In Georgia, in a year when Democrats enjoyed an advantage of more than 7 percent in the national vote for all House races, the Democrats in Georgia's 8th and 12th districts were only a few hundred votes away from becoming the only incumbents in their party to lose their jobs on Election Day.

Why, then, would James Carville respond to the 2006 election by offering Harold Ford a new job teaching Democrats how to win? Ford tried to woo the Southern white voter, and since that's the model Carville and much of the rest of the Democratic Party has pursued doggedly since the 1990s, Carville wants him to replace Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean. But the camo-capped Ford failed in his hunt for NASCAR man, and there's little evidence that the model works anyway. If anything, Election Day 2006 was striking proof that it does not. Perhaps Carville, a man with a vested interest in the Southern strategy, doesn't want to admit that it's a relic of another century, and that the Democrats might be better off without it.

For the first time in 50 years, the party that controls both chambers of Congress is a minority party in the South. And in the last four presidential elections, the Democratic candidate has either garnered 270 electoral votes, the minimum needed to win, or has come within one state of doing so before a single Southern vote was tallied. Outside the old Confederacy, the nation is turning blue, and that portends a new map for a future Democratic majority.

While Ford was losing and Carville was grumbling, that process took a giant leap forward last Tuesday. Though trailing in generic House race exit polls in the South by 8 points, the Democrats won the West by 11 points, the Midwest by five and the Northeast by an incredible 28. Democrats picked up 11 House seats in the Northeast, turning that region into a power base as solidly blue as the South is red. Democrats added 21 seats in state legislatures in Dixie, but that was a disproportionately small percentage of the more than 270 they gained nationwide. They captured new legislative majorities in nine chambers, none of them Southern.

This trend will come as no surprise to anyone who paid close attention to the 2004 election, when the Democrats actually won the non-Southern congressional elections in both chambers despite losing the presidential contest. That's right: They won. The GOP's pickups were all in the South, as they grabbed five House seats in Texas thanks to Tom DeLay's redistricting and five Southern Senate seats thanks to Democratic retirements. Outside the South, the Democrats picked up two House seats. In the Senate, they won two and lost one, adding two new stars, Ken Salazar in Colorado and Barack Obama in Illinois, and losing Tom Daschle of South Dakota. While the Democrats were losing 30 state legislative seats in the South, they were gaining 90 in the rest of the country.

Why do the Democrats struggle in the South? Why, for example, did a candidate like Harold Ford lose in a Democratic year? In the case of Ford, four explanations are possible. One, all of his pandering to lure values voters backfired because it made him look inauthentic; two, the questionable legacy of his father was too much to overcome; three, no matter how much Ford tried to moderate his image, a small but critical share of white Tennesseans were simply not going to pull the lever for an African-American candidate; or four, the state and the region are just too conservative to elect a Democrat and have a built-in bias toward Republicans.

As to why Democrats in general struggle, and how the state and region became so Republican and conservative, there are five answers. First and -- sadly -- foremost, as it may have been in Tennessee, is race. Analyses of the National Election Study data from 2004 show that the attitudes of white Southerners on national defense and even abortion fail to explain their preference for Republican presidential candidates, but attitudes on race do. Anyone who needs proof of the power of racial polarization in the South need only look at the blackest state in the union. Mississippi is 38 percent black, yet has a Republican governor, two Republican senators, and delivered its electoral votes to George Bush without a fuss twice. Southern whites vote as a racial bloc for the GOP. Statistics seem to show that loyalty to the Republican Party is at its highest among voters in Wyoming, Idaho and Utah - until you start crunching the numbers for white voters only, and realize just how solid and white the GOP's solid South is.

Second, the South is the most religious and evangelized region of the country, making it the most fertile ground for a socially conservative message. It is also (third reason) the nation's most rural region, which only reinforces its social conservatism.

Fourth, the gender gap in voting that prevails nationally is smallest in the South. Even the women in the South are Republican. In 2004, there were only five states in the entire country where there was either no gender gap or an inverse gap -- Bush doing worse among men than women -- and three of those states were in the South.

All of which brings us to the fifth and last reason: The South is the least unionized region. The one group of white, working-class Americans among whom Democratic loyalty still remains strong is union members and union households, and they are scarce in the South. In the 2006 midterms, non-union household members split their congressional votes evenly between the parties, whereas union members, retirees and family members broke Democratic by a 30-point margin. Forty years ago, Richard Nixon began the process of turning the South Republican by appropriating George Wallace's appeal to disaffected working-class whites. Race, often encased in such coded phrases as "law and order," was the basis of much of the GOP's appeal. Over four decades, by fits and starts, the Republicans captured the South. With the ballast and votes that capture provided, the GOP emerged as the national majority party from the top of the ballot to the bottom by 2000. Democrats did not want to write off the region that had been their historic heartland. It had always held the key to political power, since the party that controlled the region had typically dominated national politics. The importance of the South seemed accentuated by the shift of population and House seats and electoral votes to the region at the expense of the Northeast and the Rust Belt. Democrats felt they had to run to the right, à la Harold Ford, in order to compete in the region, and they felt they had to compete in the region to run the country.

Yet the GOP's majorities were thin. Bush won in 2000 despite losing the popular vote. The Senate majority that was just voted out of office represented fewer Americans than did the Democratic minority. Gerrymandering has exaggerated Republican shares in the national and state legislatures beyond their underlying support.

In short, Republicans have squeezed every last vote out of their mostly white, largely Southern, highly divisive, screw-the-coasts national strategy. First the South turned Republicans; now the Republicans have turned Southern. Their identity is becoming more and more bound to a philosophy and a region. Last week was the first sign that the electoral accountants are knocking on the door, asking to see the GOP's receipts.

Democrats, meanwhile, now have a great opportunity to build a national majority. They need to continue consolidating their control over the coasts, turn the purple Midwest blue, and pick off selected seats in the West. The 2006 midterms were a big step in that direction. Democrats flipped about 30 percent of the GOP-held House seats in the Northeast, about 15 percent in the Midwest, and 10 percent in the Far West. In the South, their "flip rate" was just 6 percent. After last week, Connecticut's Chris Shays is the only Republican among New England's 22 seats.

As for the South, there are still opportunities, particularly where non-Southerners are staging a second Reconstruction. This is happening in places like North Carolina's Research Triangle Park, with its three major universities and high-tech corridor. Most notably, it's happening in Northern Virginia, the growth of which, as Hotline editor Chuck Todd aptly puts it, led the Commonwealth in seceding from the Confederacy, as evidenced by the casting aside of George Allen in favor of Sen.-elect James Webb.

If Democrats can build on their 2006 victories, the changes to come will be brought from the three-quarters of America found either north of the Mason-Dixon Line or west of the Mississippi River. That part of America asserted itself on Tuesday, and that part of America is actually the majority of the country. Having captured the attention of the majority, the Democrats don't need Carville or Ford telling them how to fight for the favors of an encircled, and no longer triumphant, Southern minority.

By Thomas F. Schaller

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2006 Elections Democratic Party