Since President Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Democrats have dreamed of turning Dixie blue. With the exceptions of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton (twice) and Obama, Democrats have failed to carry ANY Southern state. But optimism springs eternal. In the case of the South Democrats hope demographics will yield winning results in the near future.
President Obama’s victories in Virginia (twice), Florida (twice) and North Carolina (once) were predicated on strong minority turnout. The President garnered an abysmal level of support among whites in the South (12% in 2008). Beyond the fact that Obama’s Get Out The Vote operation was vastly superior to his opponents, it also would not have been possible if the demographics of the South were not changing. Consider Virginia. In 2004 the electoral demographics of the state were 72% white and 28% non-white (Bush carried about 20% of the non white vote). In 2008 these demographics changed dramatically in Democrats favor with the white vote shrinking to a mere 70% and the non white vote bumping up to 30%. According to the 2012 exit polls the same demographic profile defined the electorate. A similar phenomena can be seen in Florida and North Carolina (these states electorates are more racially polarized).
However, these electorates have yet to materialize in non-Presidential years. In the 2009 Virginia gubernatorial race the electorate was whiter than 2004, with a mere 22% of the electorate being nonwhite. Even the state’s 2013 gubernatorial electorate could not hide the fact minority turnout was weaker than 08 and 012. Despite Democrat Terry McAuliffe winning a narrow race for Governor he did so because of weak turnout in traditionally affluent, white GOP leaning suburbs. Cuccinelli, the GOP nominee for Governor, did far worse than McDonnell among whites. Still, the electorate was far more diverse than 2009, with only 72% of voters being white (again, partly due to weak turnout in white suburbs).
The midterms of 2010 showcased how dependent the Democratic Party has become on the minority vote (especially the black vote) in the South. With weak turnout in many Southern states Democrats were washed away in a flood of historic electoral proportions. Democratic losses in the South were worsened with the retirement of several, conservative lawmakers in 2012 who had survived the massacre of 2010. Few conservatives are left in the Democratic Caucus and even fewer hail from their former stronghold, the South.
In many ways the electoral landscape of 2014 rivals that of 2010, though some on the left disagree. The President is unpopular, Obamacare is being re-litigated among the electorate and worries over the sluggish economy persist. But Democrats are optimistic they can make headway in the South with a strong crop of young, talented and diverse candidates. It does help these candidates hail from conservative, Democratic families. In Kentucky, Secretary of State Allison Grimes has a real shot at taking down Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In Georgia, Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Governor Sam Nunn, is running neck and neck for the seat of retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss. Endangered incumbent Senators Mark Pryor (AR), Mary Landrieu (LA) and Kay Hagan (NC) are also competitive against their GOP competition. Pryor and Landrieu both have deep political roots in their states.
All these candidates are essentially running against the President. Or at least running on different issues than the President. Landrieu is running on her ties to the oil and gas industry, Pryor on his social conservatism and Hagan on her bipartisan appeal. Both Nunn and Grimes have promised to be independent voices within the Democratic Party (insert sarcasm here). This strategy is designed to win conservative whites. This has become an increasingly dim prospect in the South for the party.
This is where demographics comes in. As the white share of the vote continues to drop in many Southern states it gives Democrats the chance to disregard the white vote and campaign as full-blown progressives. This would mobilize minority turnout in these rapidly changing Southern states and marginalize the shrinking white vote. At least this is the argument of Bob Moser, author of “Blue Dixie.”
Moser and many Democrats who believe this theory are at a loss to explain a drop in minority turnout during midterms. Now, apparently it is all because many Southern Democrats still campaign as conservatives in a futile attempt to get some of the white vote. While true that this campaign strategy fails far more than it succeeds it has worked in the past. How else could the Landrieus and Pryors of the South get elected? Further, the electorates of these states are highly polarized, meaning that an increase in minority turnout for a progressive candidate is only likely to galvanize the GOP base that much more. It is unclear whether Moser’s belief that an increase in white turnout would only be marginal and be vastly outweighed by the increase in the non white vote.
Still, Democrats remain optimistic. But progressive politics has yet failed to yield results in many Southern states, even those Democrats have had success in. Consider Florida and Virginia. Despite Virginia’s turn to the left since 2008, neither of the state’s US Senators, former Governors Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, campaigned on fully progressive policies. In Florida, US Senator Bill Nelson has been reelected largely because of the moderate persona he has created throughout his tenure in the Senate.
Both Virginia and Florida are vastly different from the rest of the South however. This means the model for running in these states, the model partly championed by Moser and progressives, are unlikely to work, even in changing states like North Carolina and Georgia. Instead, running as a moderate to conservative white Democrat in the South still can work (if rarely) compared to never working running as a progressive. Indeed, Democrats have been able to bear witness to a test run of running as a progressive in the South.
In Texas, state senator Wendy Davis, a darling of the grassroots, is challenging unbroken GOP control of the Governor’s mansion since 1994. Davis’s claim to fame, filibustering a late-term abortion ban (it passed anyways), galvanized her progressive base. But in a sign of just how hard it is to run as a progressive in a Southern state, it has failed to garner support from anywhere else. Badly trailing her GOP opponent, Secretary of State Greg Abbott, in the polls she has resorted to jumping around conservative policies (ie. I like gun control until I don’t). Instead of abortion she talks about women’s health and instead of health insurance she talks about covering preexisting conditions. Perhaps the only issue she sounds like a progressive on is civil rights (opposing photo ID). To say her campaign has flopped is to put it mildly.
Texas does not even have nearly as polarized an electorate as its Southern neighbors. Unlike LA, GA, AR and NC, Texas’s white vote usually gives 25%-30% of the white vote to the Democratic candidate. The nonwhite vote, especially since Bush and Perry, has also split almost to the point of being even in some elections (98, 2010). This not only points to how hard it is to run as a progressive in the South today but also the future. There is no guarantee the non white vote will remain so exclusively Democratic, especially if the economy does not grow and progressive policies start creating winners and losers in the minority community. Just ask how Democratic Asians are feeling in California after the legislature tried to enact Affirmative Action times two.
Regardless, Democrats are unlikely to turn away from the theory demographics equals destiny in the South. But so far, the non white vote has been unable to swing elections by itself. Obama’s victories in the region would not have been possible without the support of young whites, single women and the affluent. Democrats could do a lot better than counting on demographics to change the region. Re-branding their party in the region and cultivating a crop of young, dynamic and diverse candidates that speak to all racial groups no matter where you live would be a good start. Unfortunately, for the party at least, they continue to dream about demographics changing Dixie.