Analysis shows Democrats' woes in South

Politics: A generation-long trend accelerates under Bush as Republicans tighten their grip.

December 17, 2004|By Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The generation-long political retreat of Democrats across the South is disintegrating into a rout.

President Bush dominated the South so completely in last month's presidential election that he carried nearly 85 percent of the counties across the region - and more than 90 percent of the counties in which whites make up a majority of the population, a Los Angeles Times analysis of the election results and census data shows.

The Times analysis, which provides the most detailed picture yet of the vote in Southern communities, shows that Bush's victory was even more comprehensive than his sweep of the region's 13 states would suggest.

His overwhelming performance left Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry clinging to a few scattered islands of support in a region that until the 1960s provided the foundation of the Democratic coalition in presidential politics. Kerry won fewer Southern counties than any Democratic nominee since the Depression except for Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and George S. McGovern in 1972, according to data assembled by the Times and Polidata, a firm that specializes in political statistics.

In Southern counties without a substantial number of black or Latino voters, Bush virtually obliterated Kerry.

"We are out of business in the South," said J.W. Brannen, the Democratic Party chairman in Russell County, Ala., the only white-majority county in the state that Kerry carried.

The results underscore the magnitude of the challenge facing Democrats as they try to rebuild their Southern support. Most ominously for them, the patterns suggest that under Bush, the GOP is solidifying its hold not just on Southern white conservatives but white moderates as well, a trend also apparent in exit polls of Southern voters on Election Day.

"As the older white moderates leave the scene, they are being replaced with younger moderates more willing to vote Republican," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta and the author of several books on Southern politics.

Compounding the Democrats' problem is the growing tendency of Southern whites who vote Republican for president to support GOP candidates down the ballot. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan won slightly more counties across the South than Bush did this year; but after Reagan's landslide, Republicans held just 12 of the 26 U.S. Senate seats in the region.

After Bush helped the GOP win six open Southern Senate seats last month, Republicans now hold 22 of the 26 Senate seats in the 13 states.

That is the most either party has controlled in the region since Democrats won 22 in 1964 - the election in which the white backlash against the Civil Rights Act allowed the GOP to make its first inroads into the South.

Forty years later, under a Southern Republican president, the South has become an electoral fortress for the GOP. Outside the South, Democrats hold more House and Senate seats and won many more Electoral College votes than the GOP last month. But the GOP's advantage in the region has been large enough to overcome those deficits and create Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress and the Electoral College.

And the magnitude of the Republican sweep last month suggests that the GOP advantage across the region is expanding.

"I don't think that for 50 years we're going to be a Republican section of the country," said former Democratic National Committee Co-Chairman Donald L. Fowler of South Carolina. "I really believe we have the potential to turn a lot of this around in a decade. But it will take constructive, directed, consistent work to do it. It's just not going to happen by itself. We're in too big a hole."

Politically, the South includes 13 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Together they now cast 168 Electoral College votes, just over three-fifths of the 270 required for election.

In the Senate, Republicans have increased the number of seats they hold in the 13 Southern states from 18 before Bush took office to 22. In the House, Republicans have stretched their advantage in those states from 27 seats before he took office to 40 today.

"This is a cumulative process that has gained critical momentum in the past four years," said Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser.

Analyzing the results at the county level vividly illustrates Bush's dominance.

In 2000, Bush won 1,047 counties across the South and held Democrat Al Gore to 294, according to figures from Polidata.

This year, Bush won 1,124 counties and Kerry took 216, according to Polidata figures based on preliminary election results. (The South had one fewer county this year than in 2000 because two jurisdictions merged in Virginia.)

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