For Democratic Hopefuls, the Deep South Is a Winner
If the past 25 years of Democratic presidential nomination contests are any guide, the process for 2020 will follow a familiar pattern: One candidate will dominate the Deep South and walk away with the nod, and everyone else will whine about how they got screwed by the party establishment. You'd be forgiven if this isn't what you've been led to believe by stories about the early contenders, which are often framed as a battle between an insider-friendly choice from a wealthy urban coastal area (like Hillary Clinton) and a champion of the white working class and rural America (like Bernie Sanders).
The truth is, while recent party nominees John Kerry, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton hailed from large urban areas, it's the Deep South that ultimately anointed them. Going back to 1992, seven states have voted for the Democratic Party's eventual nominee every time -- Illinois and Missouri in the Midwest; Virginia; and the four Southern states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. If John Edwards hadn't won his home turf of North and South Carolina in 2004, we could add those two to the list. Washington, D.C., has a perfect record as well.
This isn't a fluke. Not counting superdelegates, the Democratic Party's nomination process awards delegates on a proportional basis. As a result, blowouts count for a lot, while narrow victories count for little more than bragging rights. Sanders won the hotly contested battleground states of Wisconsin and Michigan, giving him a net advantage of 14 pledged delegates in those two states. Clinton dominated the state of Louisiana and walked away with 37 pledged delegates there compared to Sanders's 14. And Alabama gave Clinton a net advantage of 35 pledged delegates, while California only gave her a net advantage of 33.
The common denominators of these Southern states are their large black populations and racially polarized electorates. The "Democratic nominee plus Edwards" states and the District of Columbia make up seven of the 10 states with the highest proportion of black populations. In these states, white voters are far more likely to be Republicans, exacerbating the effect. Here in Georgia, 31 percent of the population is black, but FiveThirtyEight estimated in an analysis last year that the Democratic Party primary electorate was 51 percent black. In South Carolina, it was 61 percent, and in Louisiana, 71 percent.
One could argue that the clearest path to the Democratic nomination is to consolidate the black vote, dominate in the Deep South, build up a commanding delegate lead, then coast to victory. Consider how geography and proportional delegate allocation affected the 2016 Democratic nomination. In the 23 states Sanders won, he took a net 232 delegates more than Clinton. In that southern loop from Washington to Louisiana, she had a delegate advantage of 207. In South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, Sanders won a grand total of one county. Throw in her blowout in Florida, strip out the superdelegates and give her ties everywhere else, and Clinton still would have been the nominee.
The demographics and delegate math make this strategy look even more appealing in 2020 than it was in 2016. While delegate apportionment for the 2020 Democratic nomination has yet to be decided, it should be even more favorable to the South. In 2016, states were awarded delegates in large part based on their electoral vote levels and how much of a share they had given the Democratic Party nominees in an average of the past three presidential elections (2004, 2008 and 2012). In 2020, we'll be rolling off the 2004 vote counts -- where the Democratic presidential nominee, Kerry, performed relatively well in the Midwest but poorly in the South -- and adding the results of the 2016 election, where Democrats performed better in Texas and Georgia than they did in Iowa and Ohio. Demographics are changing faster in the South than the North, populations are growing faster in the South than in the North, and, based on prior vote counts, Democratic delegates will be moving from the North to the South.
So, a word of advice to those with 2020 hopes: Skip the pancakes in Manchester and the corn dogs in Des Moines. Instead, grab some cobbler in Macon and a po' boy in New Orleans.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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