The Nonsouthern Strategy
Last night, in the South Carolina debate among Democratic presidential candidates, John Kerry disclaimed his previous statement that it was a "mistake" for Democrats to believe they had to break Bush's hold on the south to win the 2004 election. He declared: "I've always said I could compete in the south and we can win in the south".
John Edwards saw Kerry's statement and raised it. According to Edwards, it would be an "enormous mistake" for any Democrat to write off the south and its "enormous" cache of electoral votes. He added: "No Democrat has been elected president without carrying give southern states".
Man, that's putting the bar mighty high! Does anyone really believe the Democrats can win five southern states in 2004? If not, according to Edwards, they're toast.
DR begs to differ. While he is not of the dogmatic "forget the south" school, he does believe that a basically nonsouthern strategy is the right one for the Democrats this year, if it is pursued in a sensible way. He submits, for your consideration, an extended excerpt from his recent article on the subject in The American Prospect. If you find it of interest, a link for the full article is included at the end of the excerpt.
The Nonsouthern Strategy: Not Whether But How
And now, as candidates and journalists shake the New Hampshire snows off their boots and the primary process heads south, we can look forward to a spate of media stories raising the question of whether any Democratic presidential candidate can effectively compete in the 11 southern states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Pundits will revisit Howard Dean's maladroit remark about voters with "Confederate flag decals on their pickup trucks" and mull over last November's big GOP gubernatorial wins in the region.
There's one problem with the media's question, though: It is irrelevant. The Democratic nominee will run a strategy anchored in non-southern states. And he should, for one simple reason: It is the only way to win. The reality is that just as you will not see much of George W. Bush in Providence, R.I., a Democratic message and strategy that can successfully oust the president will be one most palatable to the party's base and to swing voters on the coasts, in the industrial Midwest and in border states, and throughout the burgeoning Southwest. The South will have little to do with it.
Here's why. Putting the Gore-Nader vote together as an indicator of underlying Democratic strength, and comparing it with the Bush-Buchanan vote, the eight closest states the Democrats won in 2000 and will have to defend in 2004 are Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin. Using the same comparison, here are the eight closest states the Democrats lost in 2000, some of which they will obviously have to win in 2004: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Tennessee. By these rankings, only two out of 16 states critical to Democratic chances are in the South. Compare that with six in the Midwest and four in the Southwest and you have a sense of the mathematical logic that is driving the Democrats to focus their 2004 presidential strategy outside the South.
That logic is reflected in the state targeting lists put out by Democratic voter-mobilization groups. For example, Steve Rosenthal's America Coming Together (ACT), which is shaping up to be the most important of these organizations, has a list of 17 targeted states, only two of which are in the South (including Florida, but with Arkansas substituted for Tennessee). The rest of ACT's list is the same as above, with the addition of Maine and the substitution of West Virginia for Colorado.
Let's face it: This ain't rocket science. The data are pretty clear on where the Democrats need to concentrate their resources, and, given that their resources are limited, they will seek to concentrate them in the most efficient manner. By and large, that's not in the South. End of story.
Or is it? Political stories are rarely so simple, and this one is no exception. There could, in fact, be negative consequences to the non-southern strategy that Democrats must avoid or mitigate if the strategy is to be politically effective in 2004 and beyond. First, by disregarding conservative southern voters, the Democrats might wind up with a message that's too far left. Second, by ignoring the South too completely, the Democrats might miss some significant political opportunities -- both short-term and long-term -- in that region. Third, by pulling the presidential campaign out of the South, down-ballot Democratic candidates in the region (especially for the Senate) could be easy pickings for the GOP. Confronting these problems head-on could make the difference between a successful strategy and one that does more to weaken than help the Democrats' chances.
One of the advantages of the non-southern strategy is that the Democratic presidential candidate won't have to try to appeal to a bloc of very conservative southern white voters who aren't likely to vote for him anyway. In Georgia, for example, more white voters say they're conservative than say they're moderate, and almost a third say they're members of the religious right. And, of course, white voters in Georgia are notoriously susceptible to racial politics around issues like the Confederate flag. A national Democratic candidate who tailors his message to these voters will likely succeed only in depressing base turnout, without any compensating electoral payoff.
The possible disadvantage is that the candidate, free from this constraint, will run too far to the left in order to please the liberal base of the Democratic Party. That would be unfortunate, as well as quite stupid. The whole point of this strategy should be to allow the Democrats to craft a clear message that both excites liberal base voters and holds appeal for moderate white swing voters, especially in the Midwest where the loss of manufacturing jobs and health-care access have hit particularly hard.
A quick look at Ohio -- perhaps the most coveted Democratic electoral target in the coming election -- illustrates this. Al Gore lost Ohio's 21 electoral votes by less than 4 points in 2000, and the combined Gore-Nader vote ran only 2 points behind the combined Bush-Buchanan vote. In that election, Gore got 41 percent of the white vote; 44 percent and he would have won the state.
The economic basis for such a modest increase should be there for Democrats in 2004. Heavily unionized Ohio (37 percent of voters are in union households, including 35 percent of white voters) has lost one-sixth of its manufacturing jobs since Bush took office, including a stunning 81,000 since November 2001, the official beginning of the current economic recovery. A strong critique of the Bush administration's economic record should fall on receptive ears. It's also worth noting that the Gore campaign basically abandoned Ohio in early October of 2000, shifting resources elsewhere; so, arguably, just having a candidate who competes in the state may get Democrats much of the additional support they need.
Finally, white voters in Ohio tend to be moderate rather than conservative. They are quite unlikely to consider themselves members of the religious right and are largely unaffected by issues like the Confederate flag. This will make it harder for Republicans to sway white voters away from their economic problems simply on cultural grounds, as the GOP can do so effectively in a southern state like Georgia.
But that doesn't mean that Democrats can relax and be as liberal as they want to be about social issues and cultural sensibilities. On the contrary, Ohio, according to a recent Pew Research Center report, is still one of the more traditional states in the country on social issues. And about half of white voters there own a gun and tend to be suspicious of Democrats' views on gun control.
This means that the non-southern strategy, if it is to succeed in a critical state like Ohio, still needs the kind of "values centrism" espoused by Bill Clinton. Yes, Democrats have to support bedrock principles like a woman's right to choose, but that support has to be framed in moral terms these voters can understand ("safe, legal and rare") and combined with moderate stances on issues like gun control (think "gun safety").
The non-southern strategy is not about running as if every state were California. It's more about running as if every state were Ohio -- true to the Democratic principles and priorities cherished by the base but attentive to the concerns of the moderate swing voters who can put you over the top.