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Southern Democrat "Extinction" Was Not Inevitable and Can Be Reversed

Southern Democrat "Extinction" Was Not Inevitable and Can Be Reversed

By Sean Trende - December 11, 2014

With the defeat of Mary Landrieu this past weekend, the Southern Democrat has become, for all intents and purposes, an extinct species on the national scene.  Outside of Virginia and North Carolina, there are two statewide Democratic officeholders in the entire South: Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida and Attorney General Jim Hood of Mississippi. Republicans control every legislative chamber in the region, and they control over two-thirds of the seats in almost half of those chambers.

What’s interesting is how fatalistic the coverage has been. Much of the analysis takes an angle that Southern Democrats have “finally” disappeared from the national scene, as if this was destined to happen. But the elimination of a large wing of the party didn’t just sort of “happen.”  It was in many ways the result of choices made by the Democratic Party, and not just choices made in 1948 (when a pro-civil rights plank was added to the platform) and 1964.

To be sure, demographic and economic changes played a large role.  As early as the 1920s, you could see the vague imprint of the emerging Republican coalition in the New South. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge received 1,123 votes in South Carolina, for 2 percent of the total. But two of his three best counties were Beaufort and Charleston; Richland (Columbia) was in his top 10. Almost all were “Low Country” counties as well, which was the area of the state that aligned with the GOP first.  If you look at the counties that gave Coolidge more than his statewide margin, over 70 percent of them went for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 (when he very nearly carried the state).

As the South became increasingly urban and wealthy, as the Democrats abandoned their opposition to civil rights for blacks, and as the party embraced an increasingly liberal position on social and foreign policy issues, these states became increasingly inhospitable to Democrats. 

But it was clearly a gradual process. On the eve of the 1994 elections, Democrats controlled two-thirds of the Senate seats in the region.  At the state level things were much worse for Republicans. Just looking at state Houses, Republicans controlled more than 40 percent of the seats in Florida (41 percent), South Carolina (41 percent), and Virginia (47 percent).  Republicans controlled less than a quarter of the seats in Arkansas (11 percent), Louisiana (17 percent), and Mississippi (23 percent). This is not ancient history.

Democrats were able to hold open Senate seats in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana over the next few years, and knock off Republican incumbents in Arkansas and North Carolina. Entering the 2000 elections, Democrats still held 41 percent of the Senate seats in the South.  They held the governorships in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina.  They would lose three of those two years later, but pick up the governorship in Tennessee. 

Republicans had made some gains at the state legislative level, but they still only controlled the Florida and Virginia legislatures, the South Carolina House and the Texas Senate. They held above 40 percent of the seats in the North Carolina House, the South Carolina Senate, the Tennessee legislature and the Texas House.  They still controlled less than a quarter of the seats in the Arkansas legislature (both chambers), and less than a third of the seats in the Louisiana legislature, the Mississippi House, and the North Carolina Senate.

Even in the aftermath of the 2008 elections, Democrats held almost a third of the Senate seats in the South. They controlled the entire legislature in Alabama, Arkansas (Republicans still were under 30 percent in both chambers), Louisiana, Mississippi, and North Carolina.  They controlled the Virginia Senate, while the Tennessee House was divided.

What changed?  Part of it is attrition: Voters who remembered their family farms going into foreclosure under Herbert Hoover were dying off.  Part of it, no doubt, had something to do with the president’s race.  But this has received far too much attention. Mary Landrieu and Kay Hagan won elections in 2008 with Barack Obama atop the ticket, while Mark Pryor was seen as so unbeatable that he was unopposed that year.  It is difficult to explain change with a constant.  If Landrieu had held on to her share of the white vote from 2008, when Obama was atop the ticket, she would have probably won outright in November.  The same is true of Hagan.

So while I think Barack Obama’s race mattered, I think there were two more salient features.  The first is that the Democrats at the national level increasingly gave up on the South.  I don’t mean simply in terms of the issue positions they took, but rather with respect to the entire cultural affect of the party.  From 1928 to 2004, nearly every Democratic presidential ticket had a candidate from the South or a border state (the exceptions: 1940, 1968, 1972, and 1984). Three of those four exceptions lost. But in 2008, there wasn’t a real movement to put a Southerner on the ticket.

Moreover, when you look just at the top of the ticket, from Bill Clinton to Al Gore to John Kerry to Barack Obama, you see a steady decline in the appeal such candidates would have to older white Southerners.  The candidates become increasingly Northern, urban, and urbane. 

This disconnect was especially pronounced in Greater Appalachia (the swath of counties stretching from West Virginia and Tennessee west to Missouri and Oklahoma).  This is the heartland of Jacksonian America -- hawkish, fiercely religious and independent, but populist on economic issues -- and it is where Democrats suffered their greatest losses in the past few cycles.

Bill Clinton was as perfect a Democrat as you’ll find for this region, and he carried most of these states twice.  He was from small-town Arkansas, spoke with a Southern accent, loved Big Macs, and was in many ways a regular Bubba.  Gore had some of these attributes, but had spent most of his life in Washington. John Kerry was a step further away from Clinton. We can go through the cultural contrasts between Clinton and Obama but suffice it to say that, using this helpful typology, the Democrats have transformed from a blue coalition that tries to scrape away from the “red tribe,” into a blue coalition that tries to scrape away from the “gray tribe.”

Put differently, from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, Democrats opted for candidates who would increasingly appeal to the so-called “Coalition of the Ascendent”: young, hip, disproportionately secular and non-white America.  Obama is in many ways the culmination of this trend; in fact, I think many party leaders such as Nancy Pelosi backed him over Hillary Clinton in 2008 precisely to endorse this trend.

Politics, however, is about tradeoffs.  Obama’s attributes that appealed so much to this coalition (which is also represented heavily in the press) meant little to white Southern voters, many of whom were lifelong Democrats.  This isn’t meant to offer a normative judgment but rather simply to explain what occurred.

Even this can’t explain, though, entirely why the Democrats were gutted at the state level in the South. It also can’t explain why, for example, Joe Manchin was still able to win by double digits in West Virginia.

The problem Southern Democrats had is that many of their elected officials adopted more liberal voting records over the past decade, giving up their unique, centrist brands.  The Almanac of American Politics collects 12 key votes for each Congress. If we go back to the edition covering 2001-02, we can see what Southern Democrats’ voting patterns used to look like.  A Northern liberal like Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts aligned with a conservative like Jon Kyl of Arizona on just one of these 12 votes. Mary Landrieu, however, voted with Kyl on five, while John Breaux of Louisiana voted with him on eight.  Perhaps more importantly, the votes that these Democrats cast with Kyl tended to be on the most crucial issues: the Bush tax cuts, ANWR drilling, military-force authorizations, and barring cooperation with the international court, for example.  The differences tended to come on issues where the Democratic position was broadly popular or of low salience: The Patient’s Bill of Rights, funding hate crime prosecutions, and allowing homeland security personnel to unionize.

Fast-forward to 2009-2010.  Mary Landrieu voted with Jon Kyl on only two of the key votes, while Pryor voted with him on four. Hagan voted with Kyl on three. Moreover, these votes weren’t on “big-ticket” items: measures such as a repeal of D.C. gun laws and stopping EPA climate regulations weren’t salient enough to overcome votes for the stimulus, confirming Justices Kagan and Sotomayor, passing the health care bill and financial regulation reform.

 What had kept Southern Democrats in the game for so long was that, on popular, major items, they tended to vote like Republicans.  This changed over the past decade, especially 2009-10, when national Democrats needed their votes to move anything tied to the Democratic president’s agenda. Southern Democrats went into their 2002 and 2008 elections being able to point to important, defining issues where they’d broken with their national party. In 2010, 2012 and 2014, they couldn’t really do the same.  It’s a combination of these factors, really, that led to the wipeout.

The good news for Southern Democrats is that, because this didn’t just sort of happen, it really is reversible. There are no permanent majorities in politics.  An unpopular Republican president would move the needle.  A Democratic fundraising base that chose not to go nuclear on a Democratic candidate who opposed Obamacare or the stimulus would have done it. A more culturally “red” Democratic nominee would help. The voters who elected Phil Bredesen governor of Tennessee by 40 points are largely still around, as are the people who elected Mike Beebe governor of Arkansas by 30 points in 2010 and 14 points in 2006. The same goes for the folks who sent Landrieu and Hagan back to the Senate in 2008, or Blanche Lincoln in 2004. The people who elected a swath of moderate-to-conservative Democrats in 2006 and 2008 are still there. The party just has to try to appeal to them, or at least give more latitude to its candidates to appeal to them, as Rahm Emanuel did in 2006.

The bad news for Southern Democrats is that Democrats aren’t likely to do this anytime soon, and if they did, they’d pay a price.  Politics, again, is about tradeoffs, and by appealing to a more downscale coalition, Democrats would sacrifice enthusiasm gains among their new coalition.  As I’ve said before, if Hillary Clinton had been the nominee in 2008, Mitch McConnell might not have been a senator in 2009, but Gordon Smith might have survived in Oregon. National Democrats don’t seem inclined to make this tradeoff anytime soon (plus, the wipeouts have left Democrats without much of a bench in these states), and the zeitgeist seems to be against it.

The South isn’t a lost cause for Democrats if they don’t want it to be one.  Their problem is that the national party doesn’t seem to care right now if it is one, and there are clear electoral benefits from focusing elsewhere. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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