Don't expect Democrats to rise again in South

July 27, 2004|By Mark J. Rozell

PUNDITS SUGGEST that having a native son Southerner on the presidential ticket matters to the Democrats, that Sen. John Edwards now makes the party's ticket competitive in some of the Old South.

Yet some recent polling data suggest that this may not be the case. Most telling, Sen. John Kerry has not gained in polls of North Carolina voters since the selection of Mr. Edwards. If he cannot improve the party's prospects in his home state, where else in the South can he boost his team?

There were good reasons to place Mr. Edwards on the ticket, but not because his selection suddenly moves the campaign to the South. He is a solid presence on the campaign trail, an economic populist who connects with certain key swing voters in battleground states, a charismatic speaker who brings excitement to a ticket that some see headed by a dullard. These are clear assets to the Democratic campaign, but far different from what many observers had expected from a Southern presence on the ticket.

The difficulties for the Democrats in the South today are too serious to be overcome simply by choosing a Southern running mate. Indeed, the voting trends in the South are so heavily in favor of the GOP that it is questionable whether it makes much sense for the Kerry-Edwards campaign to spend much of its resources there.

The once "solid South" that was the bulwark of the Democratic Party in national elections has transformed into the nearly solid Republican South.

Democratic strategists might be falsely encouraged by partisan identification data that suggest that neither party has the support of a majority of voters in any of the Southern states. As the once-solid Democratic South loosened its historic partisan ties, like in the rest of the country, many voters simply became independents. Thus, partisan ID data might suggest that the region remains competitive enough for Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards to launch a fight.

But this analysis would be too optimistic for the Democrats, since what is important in elections is how people actually vote, not how they identify their partisan affiliations. The distinctive pattern of Southern voting over the past three decades has been one of GOP candidates securing a much larger share of the vote than would be expected from the party ID data.

Thus, in 1972, Richard Nixon swept the South, even though only 20 percent of voters in the region identified themselves as Republicans. In 1984, Ronald Reagan swept the South, and the region still was less than 25 percent Republican. By 2000, the margin narrowed, but was still significant: George W. Bush won 55 percent of the vote in the South, yet only 41 percent of the region's voters claimed to be Republicans.

Other indicators are telling as well. Since 1980, no Democrat has won the South at the presidential level. Even in the 1996 Bill Clinton landslide, with two Southerners on the Democratic ticket, the hapless Bob Dole still won two-thirds of the region's electoral votes.

But the Clinton experiences in 1992 and 1996 at least had the effect of changing the conventional wisdom that Democratic candidates cannot win the presidency without carrying the South. Instead, a Democrat can win nationally by holding down his losses in the South. Mr. Clinton did that twice, and this is surely the model that Mr. Kerry hoped to emulate when he picked Mr. Edwards.

Some suggest that the real impact of the Edwards selection is that the Democrats can narrow the margins of GOP leads in the South, thus forcing the president to expend time and resources on states he had long taken for granted. There may be some truth to this analysis, but it is hard to imagine the Bush money machine running dry because the campaign expended some of its unprecedented large war chest in some Southern states. The amount of money that President Bush will raise and spend in this campaign is staggering. Putting some resources into "safe" states will not diminish his ability to compete elsewhere in the country.

Where does all this leave the presidential campaign? Absolutely in the same spot it was in before the Edwards selection. The Deep South states are a solid part of the so-called red states (pro-Bush), and they are not so easily moving into the competitive column. Thus, unless the Bush campaign completely unhinges, look for the South to stay in the red column, leaving Mr. Bush with the task of having to win a mere one-third of the remaining votes in the Electoral College.

Mark J. Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, is co-editor of The New Politics of the Old South.

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