Searching for the New Southern Strategy

Searching for the New Southern Strategy

Democrats believe they can win back the South. DPR travelled to South Carolina to hear Democratic presidential candidates outline the way forward.

When Democrats passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson declared that Democrats had “lost the South for a generation.” Several generations later, however, Southern Democrats worry the national party has not just lost the South, but has abandoned it entirely.

Southern Democratic leaders hope to “change the narrative on how the Democratic Party is viewed,” says South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison. Last Friday, at MSNBC’s “First in the South” Presidential Forum in Rock Hill, South Carolina, they had their chance. After five hours on the road, one hour in line, one dispute with an MSNBC producer over what constituted a “stage pass,” and another two hours in the schmuck line, DPR finally made it inside the auditorium just in time to hear the Southern Democrat’s new refrain: don’t count us out, yet.

Independently organized by Southern Democratic parties themselves, the First in the South Presidential Forum moderated by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow was, in many ways, a show of Southern strength and solidarity. Co-hosted by all thirteen Southern Democratic parties, the forum hoped to capitalize on South Carolina’s importance as the fourth primary state in the Presidential contest, and translate it into a long-term Democratic institutional support.

Maddow outlined the problem well – “Democratic statewide offices have been really hollowed out. You can count a few statewide officers in Kentucky, there’s a governor in Virginia, there’s a statewide attorney general in Mississippi that you can count,” but “that’s it.” After the 2014 midterms, Congress lost its last remaining white Southern Democrats for the first time since Reconstruction.

Despite the today’s bleak picture, Democrats see Southern states as tomorrow’s battle ground states, states where Democrats are beginning to become competitive and could, one day, actually win. “We know the South is on the move,” declared DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz as she introduced the event.

Democrats certainly hope so.

Changing demographics are in their favor. For instance, the fastest growing proportion of Southern voters, non-whites, view Democrats more favorably than Republicans by a factor of more than two to one, according to the New America Project, a research outfit collaborating with the DNC. Young Southerners prefer Democrats by a similar margin.

At the same time, new urban areas (like our very own Research Triangle) create “new centers of political power” that attract largely-democratic, white collar workers, found The Atlantic. What’s more, there are likely tens of thousands of Democratic votes that the party has yet to reach. For instance, The Atlantic estimates there are 100,000 unregistered black voters in South Carolina (for perspective, Republican South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley won by around 60,000 votes). The states with the fastest growing Hispanic populations are almost entirely Southern. Texas, for example, will be majority Latino by 2030.  

Democratic campaigns have taken note. Georgia’s share of eligible black voters grew so quickly that Barack Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod “seriously looked at” making a play for Georgia in the 2012 campaign.

While Democratic support among non-whites is at an all-time high, support among Southern whites has cratered to near all-time lows. In 2012, Barack Obama delivered the best showing for a Democratic presidential candidate in Mississippi and Georgia in 30 years. At the same time, he lost the white vote in those states by the worst margin in 30 years.

The national party has not been trying to win Southern white votes; it has just been hoping those votes become less relevant.

But demographics are not destiny, and neglecting any effort to expand the party and win new voters is dangerous for Democrats. In the South, as Rachel Maddow pointed out, the Democrats are losing fights they should be winning. For instance, just last week, Houstonites overwhelmingly voted to rescind an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance, making Houston “the largest city in the country not to have an anti-discrimination ordinance.”

“Houston is in Texas, but it is a blue dot in Texas… if Democrats can’t build and hold that kind of a basic civil rights protection, is there something wrong?” asked Maddow. 

All candidates acknowledged the party has fallen short.“The Democratic party, as radical as it may seem, should be a 50 state party,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders to wild applause (the joke is that it is not radical and that that is, in fact, how the party ostensibly operates), “You can’t give up on South Carolina, Mississippi, or Alabama.” The Democrats need to “act like a party again” argued O’Malley.

Southern states and other “unwinnable” regions do not share in the same Presidential cycle investment as local parties in swing states do, nor do they have the same homegrown support blue state do. The result is that Southern Democrats have trouble competing even at the local level, activists argue, and Democrats are giving up on chances to win important city council, legislative, school board, or state-wide races. While these trends are true across the country, the effects are particularly acute in the South.

All candidates hoped a more populist economic message could appeal to the voting block that has most turned against the party — the white working class. “I’m going to talk to working class Americans and say, ‘Why do you keep voting against your own best interest?’ We have got to make a major focus on getting white-working class people back into the Democratic party,” said Sanders.

Secretary Clinton, made a similar play for working class whites, “Not only are communities of color being left behind, but this recent study… shows that white, middle-aged Americans without a college education are dying earlier than their parents and their grandparents” (study found here). The message: working class whites have reason to feel that the status quo is not working them. Clinton hopes that will translate into Democratic support the same way it worked for her husband.

Southern whites may be more receptive to Democratic messaging than in the past, suggest findings from the New America Project. While the Democratic Party is still viewed “strongly unfavorably” by Southern white voters, these voters are also likely to blame Republicans for “focusing only on the special interests and the wealthy.” Southern whites fear the influence of large corporations in government more than they fear “welfare” or “big government.” Only 7% believe taxes are too high.

But whether many of these anti-establishment voters are ready to commit themselves to the Democratic cause is doubtful- many fit the profile of the average Trump supporter. If current trends hold, however, Democrats will not need to win Southern whites, they just need to lose them by a little bit less.

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