Alex's Outlook

Friday, November 14, 2003

Memo to Southern Democrats: Drop Dead

Today's WaPo has a somewhat perceptive piece on the Democrats' Southern collapse and their need to abandon the South entirely - including Florida. As the article points out,

Gore campaign manager (and Southerner) Donna Brazile says that two months before Election Day, the Gore team began to divert resources from every southern state except Florida. The close outcome there validated that decision -- the last time around. But the president's brother won reelection as governor in 2002 by 13 points, and Republicans also control both chambers of the legislature. If Florida, with its snowbird, transplanted population, eludes the Democrats, what southern battlegrounds remain?

The first rule of electoral politics is: Don't Try to Win the Last Election. Why, then, do some Democrats seem bent on trying to revive a disintegrated New Deal coalition in order to replay, and somehow win, the 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984 and 1988 elections all at once? The bitter truth is that the Florida recount was the Democrats' last stand in the South for the foreseeable future. Gore capitulated in December 2000 at the vice president's residence in Washington. Appomattox would have been the more fitting location.

Farther down the ballot, Democratic fortunes in the South are only slightly less gloomy. With each passing election, there are fewer state and local Democratic officials to legitimize the party's brand name, mobilize resources and serve as surrogates for the national party.

With the recent election results, Republicans hold nine of the 12 southern governorships. With incumbent senators retiring in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, the Democrats are likely to lose at least three Senate races in the 2004 election, which would give the GOP an impressive 18 of the South's 24 seats. The Republican advantage in the House is much smaller, with 57 percent of the 133 southern seats. But if the re-redistricting of Texas goes as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay hopes it will, that share will increase next year and create yet another GOP congressional delegation majority. At present, only Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas are majority-Democrat delegations, with Mississippi's four seats evenly divided.

While the Democrats can still claim a slight lead in southern state legislatures -- 13 of the South's 24 House and Senate chambers -- that margin is dismal compared to the overwhelming one they held three decades ago. The GOP controls the North Carolina House, the Georgia and Kentucky Senates, and both houses in Florida, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia -- chambers that, not long ago, Republicans only dreamed of controlling.

The article goes on to argue, somewhat less convincingly, that greener pastures await in the Southwest.

Lest Republicans rejoice, Gore's 2000 performance also reveals that there are plenty of votes to be won elsewhere. Consider, for example, the dramatic changes underway in what might be called "the new Southwest."

Between 1988 and 2000, the Democratic margin of defeat plunged from more than 21 percentage points to less than 6 points in Arizona and just 3 points in Nevada. Combine Nader's votes with Gore's and these states have gone from GOP blowouts to tossups in just three election cycles. In Colorado, Gore did worse than Michael Dukakis did in 1988, but better once Nader's vote is included. Taking a longer view, New Mexico went consecutively for Nixon twice, Gerald Ford once, Reagan twice, and George H.W. Bush once -- but has gone Democratic since 1992. And population growth gives the Southwest four more electoral votes in 2004 than in 2000.

One key to a Democratic Southwest is the growing influence of Latinos, who in 2002 became the nation's largest ethnic minority. Two surveys conducted last summer, one by pollster Sergio Bendixen and another by CBS News/New York Times, indicate that the GOP is losing ground with the ethnic group that Karl Rove believes is critical to a Republican realignment. And there's more to the story than ethnicity. As electoral scholars John Judis and Ruy Teixeira show, these southwestern states feature the progressive-centrist "ideopolis" cities of Tucson, Denver, Las Vegas and Santa Fe.

Future presidential contests get a whole lot easier if Democrats can successfully employ a southwestern strategy. Add the solidly Democratic northeastern and Pacific Coast states. Stir in post-industrial, midwestern Rust Belt states such as Illinois and Michigan. If Democrats solve their solvable Ohio problem, they can win the presidency without carrying any states south of Maryland and east of the Mississippi River. Non-southern coalitions worked for the GOP for decades: Teddy Roosevelt, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge all coasted to victory without the South.

Except that Ohio isn't going Democrat anytime soon. The Republicans have a supermajority in the state legislature, the governorship, both Senate seats and a majority of the Congressional delegation. Furthermore, Oregon, Wisconsin and Minnesota - about 28 electoral votes - were won by Gore by a margin of about 1% or less. New Mexico's 7 electoral votes were won by 366 votes. Iowa's 7 electoral votes were won by a very slender margin as well.

If the election were held today, the Democrats would tie the electoral college 269-269 if they carried every state carried by Gore - a tall feat in itself - plus New Hampshire and West Virginia. This is due to population changes over the past decade that have shifted several electoral votes to primarily Texas, Florida, Arizona and Nevada, and away from New York and Massachusetts.

The GOP has made major gains among Hispanics in the last 2 years, and pre-911 Gore won the most Hispanic state by only 366 votes. Bush was a singularly weak candidate in 2000, and I don't think the Democrats will come close to their 53-47 margin in Arizona or 51-48 in Nevada for a long, long time. And if the Republicans bring in, say, half the electoral votes they barely lost (21), they won't even need Arizona or Nevada anymore. The GOP could easily win Pennsylvania and Michigan, too; Michigan has a Republican congressional delegation and Republican control of the legislative branch. Ditto for Pennsylvania. They had the governorships of both states until 2002, when Engler and Ridge were term-limited out. Michigan and PA are indispensable for the Democrats, and yet they can't win both of them on a frequent basis.

TR, Harding and Coolidge won without the South because they won everything else. Today's Democrats don't stand a prayer of that, even in the best possible conditions.


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