Due South

By

In a speech in Hanover, New Hampshire, on January 24, John Kerry
chided Democrats for "looking South," for thinking states on the
other side of the Mason-Dixon line could bring them the presidency.
But fortunately, in choosing North Carolina Senator John Edwards as
his running mate, Kerry has done exactly that. More important than
the political skill Edwards brings to the ticket is the opportunity
he offers to keep the Democratic flame lit in Dixie--a strategic
necessity if Democrats ever want to become the majority party
again.In 1960, the eleven Southern states represented 22 percent of the
votes in the electoral college; in 2004, they will account for 28
percent. If George W. Bush wins all of these states in November, as
he did in 2000, he'll have 153 electoral votes. Add to that 62
electoral votes primarily from Prairie and Rocky Mountain states
that Bob Dole and he won 1996 and 2000, and Bush will be only 55
votes shy of a majority--votes that could come from either Ohio or
Pennsylvania, plus Missouri, West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, and
Nevada (all states Bush won in 2000). The Democrats cannot afford
to spot the GOP this kind of lead in presidential elections.

The same dynamic governs control of the Senate. If Democrats cede
the region's 22 seats, the Republicans are almost halfway to a
majority--much closer if one adds almost certain victories in
states like Utah and Kansas. This year, the situation is
particularly acute: 19 Democratic Senate seats are being contested
as compared with only 15 Republican seats. Five of the 19 are in
Southern states where Democrats are retiring. The Democrats could
conceivably lose all of these, making it virtually impossible for
them to recapture the Senate not only this year, but in 2006 as
well, when more Democratic than Republican seats will again be up
for grabs.

Edwards won't necessarily bring Kerry any Southern states, and he
won't guarantee the victory of Democratic Senate candidates. But
his candidacy could stop the erosion of Democratic support in the
South. He'll force Bush to spend resources there, and he'll allow
the party's Senate candidates to run openly as Democrats rather
than hiding their party registration. Most important, Edwards will
point the way to a viable Southern Democratic party--one that is
broadly progressive and based in the region's fastest-growing
high-tech areas.

The South was, of course, solidly Democratic until the 1960s, when
the party split over the civil rights movement and the
enfranchisement of Southern blacks. By the 1980s, many Southern,
white, working-class voters, particularly in "black belt" states
like Alabama and Mississippi, spurned the national Democrats as the
party of affirmative action, welfare, and secular humanism.
Together with Southern business leaders, they formed the new base of
the Republican Party. Initially, they continued to back
conservative Democratic senators and representatives even as they
voted for Republican presidential candidates. But, by the '90s, as
conservative Democrats like Mississippi Representative Jamie
Whitten finally retired, these voters chose to support their
conservative Republican counterparts.

The dominant political philosophy of the South did not change from
1960 to 1990, although the dominant party did. But, even as the
Republicans were consolidating their hold, subterranean social and
economic changes were subtly altering Southern political attitudes
and laying the base for a Democratic challenge to Republican
dominance. In states like North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia,
college-educated white professionals and low-wage Latino service
workers flocked into metropolitan areas like Virginia's northern
suburbs, Florida's Orange County, and North Carolina's Research
Triangle, where the primary products are services and ideas rather
than industrial goods. These fast-growing, post-industrial
metropolitan areas, which Ruy Teixeira and I have called
"ideopolises," have nourished a cosmopolitan, secular culture and
socially liberal, fiscally moderate politics. Their residents'
outlook is closer to that of Denver, Colorado, or Portland, Oregon,
than to that of the South's factory towns or rural areas.

One of the best examples is Edwards's North Carolina, whose rapid
population growth, due largely to migrants from out of state, has
been heavily concentrated in the Research Triangle (comprising
Durham, Chapel Hill, and Raleigh) and in Charlotte's Mecklenberg
County. According to surveys published in NC DataNet, 85 percent of
the new migrants in the '90s were white, 57 percent had college
degrees, 27 percent had postgraduate degrees, and 80 percent were
employed in upscale, white-collar professions. They identify
themselves as more liberal and less religious than the average North
Carolina voter. Many of them register as independents--a group that
now constitutes 18 percent of the state's voters and that,
according to an Elon University survey, is much closer to the
national Democratic Party than to the Republican Party on social
and economic issues. Fifty-seven percent of independents support
civil unions among gays as compared with 36 percent of the state's
Republicans and 48 percent of its Democrats. By wide margins, they
think Democrats would be better than Republicans at "creating jobs"
and "making health care more affordable."

In the '80s, aspiring Southern Democratic politicians had to cobble
together majorities by combining the black vote with the little
that remained of white, working-class loyalty to Democrats. But the
emergence of these new, post- industrial areas has provided
Democrats a new potential base of support. At the same time, the
national party's turn toward the center under Bill Clinton made it
possible for Southern Democrats to court white, working-class voters
without dissociating themselves from the national party.

Edwards is one of the best examples of this new Southern Democratic
strategy. In his 1998 victory over Republican incumbent Senator
Lauch Faircloth, Edwards ran as a Clinton New Democrat. He
advocated a patients' bill of rights and attacked the privatization
of social security. He was able to hold his own among the state's
white, working-class voters in the rural east, win the bulk of the
state's black voters, and amass large margins in the Research
Triangle, Mecklenberg County, and among the state's new
professionals. According to exit polls, Edwards beat Faircloth
among voters with postgraduate degrees by 57 to 41 percent.

Other recent practitioners of this strategy are Florida Senator Bill
Nelson and Virginia Governor Mark Warner. Running (like Edwards) as
a centrist national Democrat and not as a Southern conservative,
Nelson won a surprisingly easy Senate victory over Representative
Bill McCollum in 2000. He won Orange County (with its concentration
of white-collar professionals and Latino service workers) and held
his own in less affluent white areas in the Florida panhandle.
McCollum, by contrast, won in smaller, rural counties that had
abandoned the Democratic Party in response to the civil rights
movement and were now solidly Republican. McCollum, in other words,
won the dying old South; but Nelson won the new South.

In November 2001, Warner won Virginia's gubernatorial election by
following a similar script. He took Virginia's northern suburbs,
which house government workers and a host of high-tech companies,
including AOL, as well as an influx of Latino immigrants. He won
predominately white, upscale Fairfax County, the state's largest,
54 to 45 percent. But Warner, like Edwards, also showed an ability
to attract the white, working-class voters who began to become
Republicans in the '60s, handily winning rural counties that Bush
carried in 2000.

As you would expect, the strategy employed by Edwards, Nelson, and
Warner would work best now in Virginia, North Carolina, and
Florida--post-industrial metropolitan areas in those states account
for almost half the state vote. It could also eventually work in
Tennessee, Texas, and Georgia. Kerry and Edwards will still suffer
a big disadvantage this fall--many white Southerners outside of
Raleigh-Durham or Palm Beach County will see Kerry as an alien New
England liberal. But they need to win only a few Southern states,
like Clinton did, and right now, Kerry and Edwards are running even
with Bush and Cheney in Florida and North Carolina.

Edwards could help Senate candidates as well, which is why they, and
a slew of Democratic senators, had been pushing Kerry to pick him
for the veep slot. "Edwards is from the South and speaks Southern,
and I think would be helpful to the candidates in that regard,"
said Senator John Breaux of Louisiana. Edwards's candidacy will
most clearly benefit Erskine Bowles, who is running for the seat
that Edwards is vacating, but it could also help Democratic
candidates in Florida and Louisiana. Edwards alone won't turn these
races around, but, just as with the presidential contest, he will
help keep Democrats' prospects alive in the South. And, for a
vice-presidential candidate in a region the Democrats cannot afford
to ignore, that is no small accomplishment.

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