Can Democrats Ever Compete for the Deep South? Should They Even Bother?

After a wipeout, how does the old majority party ever rebuild?

Photographer: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

The headline over at National Review is, "Democrats Can Reveal Their Loathing of the South Again." The story is a little less than that; Jim Geraghty takes issue with a column from Mike Tomasky, a West Virginia native and former editor of the American Prospect, who has surveyed the 2014 battlefield and judged that Democrats cannot compete for "culturally" Southern states anymore.

Tomasky is not currently an official in the Democratic Party, so there is no evidence that the Democratic Party infrastructure that poured money in Arkansas, Georgia, and North Carolina this year is actually giving up on/degrading the South. Degrading whole areas of the country is rather more possible for elected Republicans than elected Democrats. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey showed that when he joked that the opposition felt "a heck of a lot more comfortable in Boston than, say, in America." (Fact check: Boston is a historically important part of America.) Other Republicans have shown this when fantasizing about how electoral maps might look if the pesky Democratic cities were removed. The actual Democratic Party has to pay more respects to the voters who despise it than the GOP does.

Columnists have none of these concerns. "Practically the whole region has rejected nearly everything that’s good about this country and has become just one big nuclear waste site of choleric, and extremely racialized, resentment," writes Tomasky. "A fact made even sadder because on the whole they’re such nice people." His argument is not just that the South cannot be won by modern Democrats, but that it's virtuous of them not to try. The progressive Democratic Party is in better shape without it.

It's a long-running argument. Academic and author Tom Schaller really got it humming eight years ago, when he published Whistling Past Dixie –sub-optimally right before the Democrats had a good midterm election that saw some Southern gains. Schaller imagined a Democratic Party that won by holding "the Northeast and Pacific coast blue states, the midwest, and the new-growth areas of the Interior West." That's functionally what Barack Obama achieved in 2008 and 2012, and had Mark Udall and Bruce Braley run stronger campaigns in Colorado and Iowa, we'd be talking about how Democrats pulled it off this year despite blowing it in the deep South. That's the point–in no version of reality could Democrats have pulled off deep South wins this year. 

"The irony for me is that even I would say, at this point, there’s no place to go but up for the Democrats," Schaller told me in an interview. "There’ve been five federal cycles, and in every single count there’re fewer Democratic officials from the South in almost all of those elections."

It's important to define "the South" in any discussion like this. And it's probably useful to define two schools of thought. One of them is the "whistling past Dixie" school, in which it's clear that the deep South can never be won. The other may be called the "whistling past Obama" school, in which the Democrats can clearly win again once the first black president leaves office–perhaps when a Republican president gets the chance to alienate voters like George W. Bush did.

First, the "Dixie" school. The "new-growth" areas discussed by Schaller include, as liberals would quickly argue, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. Georgia's close to earning entry into that club. Look at North Carolina, which saw 18.5 percent population growth from 2000 to 2010, and saw its non-white electorate rise from 38 percent to 42 percent. Then look at West Virginia, which grew by 2.5 percent in the same period, its non-white population rising from 5 percent to a whopping 6 percent. The "whistling past Dixie" argument assumes that the Democrats can no longer compete in the deep South, where there is no population growth or demographic shift to loosen the grip of a majority-white, conservative electorate. It assumes they can compete in the the states that are changing.

Winning Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida would give the Democrats' 2016 presidential nominee 73 electoral votes. Winning West Virginia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi would net the GOP only 62 electoral votes. It would leave Texas as the sole safe GOP mega-state, and keep the Democrats at the advantage. That's where the "whistle past Dixie" argument gains its strength–clearly, a populist Democratic party can win without the deep South as surely as the old McKinley/Roosevelt/Taft GOP could.

The problem is that there has never been a pure populist/progressive Democratic Party. Really, there hasn't. The modern Democratic Party has only controlled both Houses of Congress and the presidency when it relied on Southern Democrats who were more conservative than the party's leadership. It only governed progressively when wave elections allowed the progressives to outnumber the old-line Southern conservatives, as in 1934, 1964, and 2008.

This is why the second group of Democrats think the party must have a future beyond Barack Obama. Once he's left office, the sort of Democrats who held office in the South for generations can reintroduce themselves -- even to white moderates who bolted the party recently. In this school, it's believed that the Democrats gave away their traditional advantages by failing to run as populists.

"Southern Democrats ran on economic populism?" asked former North Carolina Representative Brad Miller, rhetorically, when sharing the Tomasky column on Facebook. "I was paying close attention, and I didn't notice. Their consultants told them to 'move to the center,' so they supported derivatives trading by federally-insured banks, and exempting student debt and home mortgages from bankruptcy relief. That's not necessarily what Southern voters think of as 'the center.'"

Miller has company inside the party. In 2015, as the party committees attempt to recruit candidates, expect them to argue that 2014 was the nadir in places like the South–that if you ran and fell short in the Obama backlash, you can expect to do much better with Hillary Clinton atop the ticket. The party would like to compete for the two congressional seats from Arkansas that were lost by around 10 points, for example.

"Look at the Republicans," says Schaller. "At one point they had three of 53 house seats in New York and New England. They got to near zero. And they've clawed back in Maine, New Hampshire, and New York. If Democrats have a landslide cycle, that might mean three new senators from the entire South. That would mean they doubled their Southern numbers in the Senate!"

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE