Revisiting the non-Southern strategy

The Prospect's editor takes out his red pen.

Published November 10, 2008 7:33PM (EST)

Mark Schmitt, the new editor of the American Prospect and my old boss, distributed grades for various election theories about 2008. Nate Silver gets an A+, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira get an A-, and I get a B for the non-Southern strategy. All sound right and fair to me.

I'm more familiar being on the other side of the desk when it comes to appealing for grade improvements. But since I'm being asked by reporters and others how I think my book, "Whistling Past Dixie," held up, here's what I will say about my book and its arguments:

  • I was somewhat surprised that Obama won North Carolina and, until the very end, that Kay Hagan did too. Liddy Dole ended up doing Hagan a great favor with that nasty atheist ad, but I can't claim I was caught totally unaware about N.C. for Obama because a top Obama person warned me over the summer not to count out my beloved Tar Heel State, and blogger friends I respect like Ed Cone in North Carolina also said they were seeing down-ballot Democratic movement in the state long before Obama rolled up. (If memory serves, N.C. is the only Southern state to flip a legislative chamber from red to blue in the past three cycles.) It's clear that the "new South" is arriving faster than I anticipated or, perhaps more accurately, that Obama was able to deliver it faster. So I was wrong about N.C. in my New York Times prediction, but was right about Georgia -- and, had Team Obama not bailed on Ga. in favor of N.C. it might have won neither, given that N.C. was closer enough to go into overtime, so to speak. So it was a wise move to pick the more likely of the two (given Bob Barr's milk carton performance), and the correct option was N.C. Kudos to David Plouffe, and congrats to dogged N.C. Democrats.
  • Having said that, notice that the three Southern states Obama won were among those with the highest median incomes for the region, although Georgia ranks higher (24th) than North Carolina (38th), which is why I suspected that Florida (27th) and Virginia (ninth nationally; no-brainer) were likely to fall but North Carolina was not -- that is, given Obama's Judis/Teixeira professionals-plus-minorities coalition forecast that Obama brought to life. It was a "new South" victory won on the backs of votes cast by a lot of non-native Southern transplants. It was not a rural Southern victory. In fact, we know now that of those 22 percent counties nationally where Obama actually underperformed John Kerry, many were in the rural and Appalachian South.
  • There is also the matter of margins: Of the nine states Obama flipped, the three Southern ones were among the four with the closest margins (Indiana being the other squeaker). Elsewhere, of the 14 states Obama lost by double digits, six were Southern. By contrast, Obama blew out McCain in his own backyard region by much wider margins in Colorado, New Mexico and, most surprisingly, Nevada. The "new West" arguments in "WPD" hold strong, very strong.
  • Obama lost the 11 former Confederate states by roughly 6.5 points overall, but won the other 39 states by 12.5 points overall. This 19-point net difference is the largest since 1972, when George McGovern lost the 39 non-Southern states by about 20 points but lost the South by about 40 points. As a more relevant point of comparison, when Bill Clinton won in 1992, his South/non-South differential was half as small (9.5 points): Clinton lost the South by 1.4 points and won the remaining 39 states by 8.4 points. Because Clinton won 331 non-Southern electors that year (and 328 four years later), I refer to him in the book and presentations as the "first Northern Southern Democratic president." So while Obama amassed 309 non-Southern electors, a smaller total, he also won with a wider Southern/non-Southern differential, making him less a product of the South than even Clinton, notwithstanding their home states/regions.
  • Widening the lens, the non-Southern majority that arrived in 2006 was further consolidated in 2008. Starting with the Senate, the Democrats had 46 non-Southern senators before last week and will now have 51 counting Oregon's Jeff Merkley and, if Alaska's Mark Begich squeaks it out, perhaps 52. It's not that having Virginia's Mark Warner and Kay Hagan is a bad thing; it's not. But they are icing on the non-Southern cake. Regionally,* the Dems have 88 percent of senators from the Northeast, 58 percent from the Far West, 53 percent from the Midwest and just 27 percent from the South.
  • Similar but less dramatic differences also obtain for the House: 82 percent Northeast; 64 percent Far West; 54 percent Midwest; and just 44 percent Southeast. (And the Southeast total is naturally higher in the House than in the Senate because there can be and are majority-minority districts in the House.) The Democrats continued to clear out Rust Belt Republicans, consolidating their dominance of the Northeast (and unanimous control over the House in New England) and expanding their control over the Midwest, just as I forecast in the book. The Dems actually lost four House seats, and three of the four(Kansas' Boyda excepted) were in the South -- and all three were earlier won in unusual circumstances, which is why the initial victories by Lampson (Texas), Cazayouz (Louisiana) and Mahoney (Florida) were so fragile in the first place. And if Nancy Pelosi is allowed to add black and Hispanic Democrats in the former Confederate states to her non-Southern caucus membership, she has a majority right there. Just consider that, for the entire period from the New Deal forward, the party with a majority of the Southern delegations was the majority nationally -- until 2006, that is.
  • The Democrats picked up another non-Southern governor in Missouri, giving them 29 overall, 24 of whom (one shy of half nationally) hail from the 39 non-Southern states. I mean, wow.
  • The Democrats flipped five more non-Southern state legislative chambers, which, added to the 10 they flipped in 2006 and the seven in 2004, makes for 22 chambers (the equivalent of five whole states) they have converted in the past three cycles combined. Again, I may have missed one, but I think only North Carolina has flipped a chamber from red to blue in the past three cycles, whereas Tennessee just lost one chamber this cycle.

So, in my own defense, I accept Mark's "B" this cycle, but would argue that my overall average since I wrote the first version of this argument in November 2003, and fleshed out the rest of the argument for the book in 2005 and 2006, is a solid B+ or A-. The Democrats have a coalition unlike one they have ever built in their history. Judis and Teixeira brilliantly predicted it, and though I was more skeptical of their hope (to borrow a term in vogue) that the "new South" areas like the I-4 corridor in Florida and the Research Triangle and, less so, Northern Virginia would be sufficient this soon to tip those states, the fact is that the emergent Democratic majority is decidedly and in some cases (Senate, Electoral College) overwhelmingly non-Southern.

And remember: This cycle was a perfect storm for Democrats in terms of environmental factors and candidate effects, including running against a non-Southern Republican nominee. Meanwhile, as I forecast, the GOP is becoming an increasingly Southern party (44 percent of its U.S. House delegation, for example), a party relegated to dominating that region but little else -- a worry we are hearing more frequently from people like George Will.

*Regions are classified into four groups for simplicity's sake and include the 11 Confederate states plus Oklahoma and Kentucky for Southeast; 12 states from Maryland and West Virginia to Maine for Northeast; 12 states from Minnesota and Wisconsin down to Nebraska and Kansas, including the Dakotas, for Midwest; and the eight interior West states, three Pacific Coast states, plus Hawaii and Alaska for Far West.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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