Can Democrats Win Red States?

Kevin Drum points to last week’s election of Democrat Brian Schweitzer as governor of Montana as evidence that Democrats can carry Red states. A Washington Monthly piece by David Sirota outlines Schweitzer’s route to victory.

Clearly, people calling themselves “Democrats” or “Republicans” can win statewide races in states dominated by the other. It happens all the time. There are several Democrats serving right now as governors in the South and Republicans sit in the governor’s chairs in New York and California as well as several New England states.

The more interesting question is whether someone who gets through the Democratic nomination process for president can carry Red states. (And vice versa for Republicans, by the way. I’m not at all sure a Rudi Guiliani or Colin Powell could ever get the GOP nomination.) That’s much more difficult.

The last two elections to the contrary, I think it is indeed possible. Despite the rigidity of the Red-Blue divide over the last four years or so, I don’t think we’re headed toward another civil war. Part of the reason neither Bush nor Gore nor Kerry appealed much beyond their base was their lack of ability to communicate a clear message that resonated. A politician with the skill sets of a Ronald Reagan or a Bill Clinton could still do extremely well with the cross-over vote.

Update (1716): I’ve had a related post sitting in my draft folder for several days now that I never got around to finishing. I’ll just add it here rather than deleting it entirely.

Ron Brownstein joins the chorus of Democrats who argue that a major change is needed for their party to contend for the White House again.

Democrats Need a Red-Blooded Candidate to Stanch Losses (LAT)

Maybe Democrats will find a way to argue about the reason for the sweep by President Bush and congressional Republicans last week. But the answer, and the lesson, appears about as clear as these things ever get: The Democrats need to widen the electoral battlefield. In the congressional and presidential races, Democrats maintained the core of their support in the blue states that Al Gore won in 2000. But at both levels, the Democrats made scant headway in the red states Bush won last time. That left Sen. John F. Kerry with too narrow a margin of error for reaching 270 electoral college votes and congressional Democrats with too few options for reversing the GOP majority. It also allowed Bush, far more than Kerry, to take the offense and erode the edges of the other side’s coalition. “We were not pressuring them in as many places as they were pressuring us,” said Steve Elmendorf, Kerry’s deputy campaign manager. “We were never really in play in a whole bunch of states Bush had won four years ago, and he was pushing us hard in states we won four years ago.”

From this pattern, the lesson seems unavoidable. Democrats need a nominee who can effectively compete for more of the country than Kerry did — especially socially conservative regions such as the South and rural Midwest. That would give the Democrats more paths to an electoral college majority. A nominee with more appeal in the red states might also create a climate that enables the party to seriously contest more House and Senate seats.

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If there’s any solace for Democrats, it’s that Bush hasn’t built a coalition so broad that it’s out of reach. The 29 states that Bush has carried both times equal 274 electoral college votes. The 18 Gore states that Kerry won plus the District of Columbia provide a base of 248 electoral college votes. Indeed, Democrats have now carried those 18 states in four consecutive elections. The party wouldn’t need to move much from red to blue to squeeze out its own narrow majority in 2008.

Indeed, they need only 22 Electoral votes. But for 500-odd votes in Florida in 2000 and 100,000 or so in Ohio this go-round, the Democrats would have won. I agree that the math favors the Republicans–there were plausible scenarios two weeks from the election for Bush to have won the election even with losses in Florida and Ohio; none existed for Kerry. Nominating a Massachussetts Senator was a dubious strategy but it’s one that came closer than I’d have prefered to working. I suspect there are Democratic governors–and possibly even a Democratic Senator or two–who could have beaten Bush.

Even aside from Ohio, several states were pretty close again this year. Given the margins, it was hardly inconceivable that a slightly better Democratic candidate could have won Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, or New Mexico. Of course, Bush was very competitive in several states Kerry won, too: Deleware, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

The Democrats need to figure out a way to nominate more appealing candidates. Aside from Bill Clinton, who was a political phenomenon, they haven’t nominated a personally engaging candidate since Jimmy Carter and, before that, John Kennedy. The current nominating process seems predisposed to nominating nerdy policy wonks or leftist firebrands with little chance of winning in the South. They were set to pick Howard Dean until he flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.