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For Democrats, Whistling Past Dixie May Be Whistling Past the Graveyard

by Alan Abramowitz
Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science
Emory University

The South is the most conservative and most Republican region of the country. In both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, the Democratic presidential candidate failed to carry a single state of the old Confederacy, although Al Gore probably did win a majority of the intended votes of Floridians. And even though Democrats made modest gains in the South in the 2006 midterm elections, Republicans continue to hold the large majority of the region's Senate and House seats.

Looking at the bleak Democratic landscape in the South, Tom Schaller argues in Whistling Past Dixie that not only should Democratic presidential candidates write off the South, they should actively campaign against southern values in order to maximize their electoral prospects in the rest of the country. What Schaller is advocating is not just a non-southern strategy for Democrats, but an anti-southern strategy.

The assumption underlying Schaller’s argument is that not only is the South more conservative than the rest of the nation, but that southern values are now so antithetical to those of voters outside of the region that trying to appeal to southerners will only reduce a candidate’s appeal outside of the region.

But is it true that a candidate who appeals to voters in the South will reduce his appeal in the rest of the country? Based on an examination of the evidence from the past six presidential elections, the answer to this question is a loud and clear no. In fact, the evidence supports the opposite conclusion: the better a presidential candidate does in the South, the better that candidate will do in the rest of the country and, especially, in the key battleground states that determine the outcomes of presidential elections.

In order to test the viability of Schaller’s anti-southern strategy, I examined the correlations among Democratic presidential candidates’ vote margins (Democratic percentage minus Republican percentage) in five states across the last six presidential elections. The five states that I chose included two southern states, Georgia from the Deep South, and North Carolina from the Rim South, and three battleground states, Pennsylvania from the Northeast, Ohio from the Midwest, and Colorado from the Mountain West. The results are displayed in Table 1.

AbramowitzTable1.JPG

Not only are all of the correlations positive, all of them are very strongly positive—a correlation of 1.0 indicates a perfect relationship between two variables, and most of these correlations are very close to 1.0. It is clear that over the last six presidential elections, the better the Democratic candidate did in Georgia and North Carolina, the better that candidate did in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Colorado.

There is no reason to believe that the positive relationship between a presidential candidate’s appeal in the South and that candidate’s appeal in the rest of the nation, including the key battleground states, will change in the future. The better the Democratic (or Republican) candidate does in the South in 2008, the better that candidate will do in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Colorado that are critical to winning the presidency. That is because southern voters respond in the same way to the candidates and issues as voters in the rest of the country.

No matter whom the Democrats and Republicans nominate for president in 2008, the South will almost certainly be the most difficult region for the Democratic candidate. But is also almost certain that no matter whom the Democrats and Republicans nominate for president in 2008, the better the Democratic candidate does in the South, the better that candidate will do in the rest of the country including the key battleground states and the better that candidate’s chances will be of winning the presidency.