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By Jay Cost

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Southern Democrats Feel Pressure from Obama Agenda

Representative Dan Boren [D-OK] recently sat down for an interview with the Oklahoma Gazette's Will Holland, and had some harsh words for the leader of his own party. The following is an excerpt from that report:

Boren has just come inside to this air-conditioned oasis after making a speech to commemorate the opening of a new Democratic headquarters in Durant, a community deep in the heart of Southeast Oklahoma. He braved the 100-degree, blast-furnace heat to speak to a gathering of local Democrats, many clad in boots and cowboy hats, because these supporters make up the base of the state's Democratic Party. And make no mistake about it: The Democratic Party is strong here. This is not, however, President Barack Obama's Democratic Party.

Ten feet from the desk, in the main hallway of Boren's new Durant headquarters, the congressman beams from a portrait, his arm draped around President George W. Bush. A photo with the current president is nowhere to be found.

"Barack Obama is very unpopular," said Boren, who represents Oklahoma's 2nd Congressional District. "He got 34 percent of the vote statewide, and less in our district. If he were to run for re-election today, I bet it would be even worse."

Boren points out that he does support some of Obama's initiatives, like the economic stimulus package. He has voted for Obama-supported bills 81 percent of the time, according to a recent Congressional Quarterly study. But despite this, he said the president is too liberal.

"It would be a lot nicer if we had someone who was in the middle," he said. "Bill Clinton won our district. A lot of people don't remember that, but he, in 1996, carried this district. I think if you have someone who governs from the middle, who's pragmatic, who works with both parties. President Obama talks a lot about bipartisanship. If you look at some of the legislation, he may have one or two Republicans." [Emphasis Mine]

There has been a lot of talk in recent months about how the shifting sands of northeastern politics has undermined the position of Republicans in that region. This shift was a long time in the making; as the public standing of George W. Bush declined from 2006 to 2008, it was not a great surprise the GOP shed seats in Connecticut, New York, and eastern Pennsylvania - all of which are places where they have exhibited weakness for some time. These seats were the "low-hanging fruit" of the Republican House caucus.

But the Democrats have a similar problem, albeit in a different part of the country. They have not suffered any significant congressional losses since 1994, so there is no story to tell of the party being wiped out in any area. Still, Democratic gains in the Northeast and West have corresponded with a decline in Southern and rural areas on the presidential level, leaving members like Dan Boren more vulnerable. We can appreciate this change by looking at the following map. It displays the countywide vote in the South Central divisions (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas) in 1996 and 2008.

South Central Divisions, 1996-2008.jpg

As we can see, Clinton was very successful in this part of the country. He won Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana by putting together a coalition of African-Americans and lower-income, rural whites. Obama, meanwhile, failed to win those lower-income whites - who swung heavily to McCain. The blue-shaded counties in the 2008 map tend to have large percentages of either African Americans (especially in Alabama's "Black Belt" and the Mississippi Delta) or Hispanics (in southern Texas). That's why Obama carried them. Importantly for Boren, the President lost every single county in Oklahoma.

There is a similar story to tell in the South Atlantic division of the country:

South Atlantic 1996 and 2008.jpg

As Sean Trende and I argued earlier in the year, Obama did about as well as Clinton did division-wide, but for different reasons. Obama polled substantially worse than Clinton in many rural and small town areas, but slightly better in many larger metropolitan areas, which have been gaining population. We can see this in particular in Virginia. Note Obama's poor performance in the southwestern part of the state. He more than made up for this difference in Northern Virginia, which is why he won the state while Clinton lost it. Notice also that Obama won fewer counties than Clinton in North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, but he was about as strong (if not a bit stronger) in the larger metropolitan areas.

Obama's strong performance in large metropolitan areas has been trumpeted by proponents of the "emerging Democratic majority," but it must be a source of concern to House members like Dan Boren, whose district is 64.4% rural and whose constituents haven't voted Democrat in 12 years. Historically speaking, Democratic strength in the South was based on the rural vote. That's the heart of the party going back to Andrew Jackson and the response to the "Corrupt Bargain" of 1825. Many of these rural voters, though conservative in outlook, still send Democrats to Congress, who now are under pressure because of the President's liberal agenda and decidedly urban coalition.

In other words, Dan Boren is probably not alone among Democrats wishing the President was more "bipartisan." The following chart lists Southern House Democrats whose districts voted more Republican than the rest of the country last year, and the extent to which there was a Republican "swing."

Southern House Democrats in Republican-Leaning Districts.jpg

To this list we might also add seven members whose districts are a stone's throw from the Ohio River: Jason Altmire (PA-4), Kathy Dahlkemper (PA-3), Brad Ellsworth (IN-8), Baron Hill (IN-9), Jack Murtha (PA-12), Zack Space (OH-18), and Charlie Wilson (OH-6). All of these districts voted for McCain over Obama. Though they were drawn differently in the 1990s, Clinton defeated Bob Dole in all of the older versions.

Most of these Southern and Ohio River Democrats voted against the Waxman-Markey climate bill. Most are also members of the House Blue Dog Coalition, which has signaled concern with the leadership's version of health care reform, and whose members actually intend to block it when it comes up for a vote in the Energy and Commerce Committee. These members come from districts that stopped voting Democratic on the presidential level some time ago, but continue to send Democrats to the House. It's not a surprise that they would be more resistant to Obama and Pelosi's agenda than Eastern and Western Democrats.

The bottom line is that Obama's voting coalition is substantially less rural, less white, and less Southern than Clinton's - leaving many House members in a difficult position vis-à-vis the party's legislative agenda. Members like Boren now must choose between their party and their constituents. Few face as much pressure as Dan Boren surely does, but most of them face at least some, especially on the controversial bills. The more they choose to side with their constituents, the smaller the margin the Democrats have for getting Obama's agenda through Congress.

Maps Courtesy of Sean Trende

-Jay Cost