Thomas Schaller writes in the Outlook section of today’s WaPo that the Democrats should simply abandon the South and concentrate their efforts in the Southwest if they want to retake the White House next year.

Solid Republican victories in the Kentucky and Mississippi governors’ races, coupled with Howard Dean’s clumsy overture to Confederate flag-waving Southerners, have raised anew the question of whether Democratic presidential candidates can compete in the South.

They can’t.

And precisely because they can’t, they should stop trying. Moving forward, the Democrats would be better served by simply conceding the South and redirecting their already scarce resources to more promising states where they’re making gains, especially those in the Southwest.

I can imagine the laughter of party strategists — and the ire of Southern Democratic officials — who subscribe to the prevailing wisdom that presidential elections are decided in the South. Indeed, pundits love to shout into the echo chamber that the last three Democratic presidents have come from the South.

This thinking is not only superficial and retrospective, but it could trigger a partisan realignment that would relegate the Democrats to minority status for a generation. Trying to recapture the South is a futile, counterproductive exercise for Democrats because the South is no longer the swing region. It has swung: Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” of 1968 has reached full fruition.

Bill Clinton’s two presidential victories create the misleading impression that the 12 states in the South (Maryland and West Virginia are generally excluded from Southern strategizing) are more competitive than they are. Yes, Clinton carried Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee twice, plus Georgia in 1992 and Florida in 1996. But a closer look shows that Clinton-Gore lost ground in the South during the 1990s — despite a growing economy, a listless 1996 opponent, an infusion of centrist policies and the two incumbents’ Southern roots.

Aside from the tired “Southern strategy” references, he’s right about the trends.

Yet some Democrats remain fixated on the notion that the presidency hinges on recapturing the region. It doesn’t. In 2000, Gore lost his native Tennessee and every other Southern state, and still came within four electoral votes of the White House. Sure, winning any of the 12 Southern states would have made Gore president — but that’s also true of the other 18 states he lost.

Gore campaign manager (and Southerner) Donna Brazile says that two months before Election Day, the Gore team began to divert resources from every Southern state except Florida. The close outcome there validated that decision — the last time around. But the president’s brother won reelection as governor in 2002 by 13 points, and Republicans also control both chambers of the legislature. If Florida, with its snowbird, transplanted population, eludes the Democrats, what Southern battlegrounds remain?

The first rule of electoral politics is: Don’t Try to Win the Last Election. Why, then, do some Democrats seem bent on reviving a disintegrated New Deal coalition in order to replay, and somehow win, the 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984 and 1988 elections all at once? The bitter truth is that the Florida recount was the Democrats’ last stand in the South for the foreseeable future. Gore capitulated at the vice president’s residence in Washington. Appomattox would have been the more fitting location.

There may be something to Schaller’s strategy. If the 2000 election played out exactly state-by-state in 2004, Bush would win by ten electoral votes instead of four, since the “red” states gained a net total of seven in the post-Census apportionment.* And, as Schaller notes, recent trends in Florida appear to have made that state harder for Democrats to capture.

Aside from the practicalities, this strategy would ultimately be disastrous. For one thing, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, since not having the presidential nominee campaign in a state would hurt candidates down ballot and likely increase the GOP advantage in the abandoned states. For another, it would almost certainly add to the political polarization in the country, putting us back where we were before the Civil War.

And, from a practical standpoint, presumably Karl Rove and the gang would be able to realize that the Democrats had conceded the South. That would mean that the GOP could likewise pull back resources from the South and focus resources in the one or two “swing” Southwest states they felt most ripe for picking. So, this strategy would not only be bad for the country, it would likely be bad for the Democrats as well. It would be far better for the Democrats to figure out how to be less offensive to a region of the country that they theoretically should appeal to: some of the poorest states in the country and the ones with, by far, the largest African American populations.

*I know the math doesn’t work out: A DC elector abstained from voting, taking one vote away from Gore and increasing Bush’s margin to four.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kevin Drum says:

    Why the objection to mentioning the Southern Strategy? It’s just a historical reality, and hardly something you can avoid if you’re talking about why the Dems lost the south.

  2. James Joyner says:


    I’ve dealt with the “Southern strategy” canard in about a half dozen posts. (See this search string.) I don’t disagree that it’s a part of the explanation, but it’s given way too much prominence given the actual history involved.