Southern Discomfort

By Schmitt, Mark | The American Prospect, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Southern Discomfort


Schmitt, Mark, The American Prospect


In his 2006 book, Whistling Past Dixie, political scientist Tom Schaller argued that the Democratic Party should learn to ignore the South. Presidential elections and congressional majorities could be won without the region, and the Mountain West was the land of political opportunity. Ignoring the South, and the reactionary politics of its white voters, would have the additional benefit of freeing the party to pursue a "non-Southern platform" of public investment and liberal social policies.

At the time, the book annoyed people. Many Democrats couldn't imagine giving up the party's base in the South. After all, the last Democrat elected president (Bill Clinton) captured five Southern states, and the previous Democrat (Jimmy Carter) won all of them. When Democrats controlled the House before 1994, they relied on Southern Democrats for their majority. Entire institutions, such as the once-influential Democratic Leadership Council, were built around the assumption that the party needed to recapture the affection of white Southerners.

Three elections later, Schaller's is the only plausible strategy for Democrats. By the time of the 2008 presidential election, Democrats had completely given up the border states that had been Clinton's stronghold, losing Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas by huge margins. Barack Obama won just 10 percent of the white vote in Alabama and 14 percent in Louisiana. Yet he made up for those losses with victories in Virginia and North Carolina, states hostile to Democratic presidential candidates for decades. Those two states--the most prosperous in the region, with growing clusters of educated professionals--also sent three Democrats to the Senate in 2006 and 2008, and Democrats like Tom Perriello won astonishing victories in rural congressional races. For a moment, the South still mattered to Democrats, but the party's base within the region had shifted to the east and to more affluent turf.

The 2010 election changed all that. Democrats lost 13 House seats in the South, including three from Virginia. Republicans took control of both houses of the North Carolina Legislature, leaving just two Southern states where Democrats control the statehouse. After the election, according to Politico, at least 10 Democratic state legislators switched parties.

In 2012, the president's strategists can choose between trying to reproduce Obama's narrow wins in the affluent corners of the South (not including Florida) or attempting to hold on to swing states like Nevada and Colorado, where Democratic senators in 2010 won on support from well-organized Hispanic voters and the labor movement. …

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