All Eyes on Dixie

How to balance northern and southern strategies is as central a challenge for the national Democratic Party in the 2000s as it was for the Republicans in the 1960s and '70s. The irony is that some of the same tactical considerations apply -- at least if one reverses regionalisms.

Three decades ago, the GOP's obvious need to concentrate on realigning the South engendered an obvious corollary debate: Should the Republican Party, in the process, write off the Northeast? My own 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, was cited as saying so, when it certainly did not. It would be equally crazy for today's Democrats to dismiss the South completely rather than simply give it a low priority when the White House is at stake.

Back in the Nixon era, national Republican strategists could and did assume, as a consequence of the expected southern shift, that the Northeast would become less of a priority -- few states there were needed -- in a tight presidential race. However, to write it off would have been silly. Indeed, between 1968 and 1988, when the GOP won five presidential races out of six, the northeastern states of New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and New Jersey went Republican at least four times. In addition, gubernatorial, U.S. Senate and U.S. House victories within the region were significant.

Today's national Democrats need what, conversely, must be called a "Northern Strategy." In any tight presidential election, the overwhelming proportion of Democratic electoral votes is going to be tabulated in the Northeast, the Great Lakes and the West Coast. A Democratic presidential candidate winning, say, 51 percent of the popular vote would probably carry only one to three of the five southern and border states most in play -- West Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana and Arkansas.

The emerging Democratic dependence on the Northeast, Great Lakes and West Coast is an old story, having been obvious since the first years of the emerging Republican majority -- in the 1968 Hubert Humphrey vote and the 1972 George McGovern vote. Jimmy Carter provided only a very brief post-Watergate interruption. The weak Al Gore pattern in 2000 was more similar than might have been expected, a phenomenon to which I will shortly return.

If Bill Clinton had half as much morality and fidelity to old Democratic constituencies as he had sheer intellect, he could have built a 1992 to 2004 Democratic mini-era. Indeed, the combined Gore and Ralph Nader vote in 2000 suggested the extension that should have been. In 1992, the old Richard Nixon-Ronald Reagan coalition was out of gas. The Democratic opportunity was there.

The very notion of a mini-era raises an important point of chronology. The old 32- to 36-year presidential cycles are probably a thing of the past, what with weak party loyalties and ticket splitting. Under these circumstances, it makes even less sense for one of the two parties to write off a region. That is especially true because there are shrewder ways to play regional politics.

1. The Southern Geography of a Democratic Northern Strategy: Just as the greater national Democratic viability in the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast has been a clear fact of the last four decades, so has the limited geography of the Democrats' southern possibilities. Florida has been northernizing. Part of what keeps West Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas in play is that the GOP no longer enjoys its old Civil War-era loyalties in the economically laggard southern mountains. And in Louisiana, Cajun Catholic strength keeps down the local electoral power of the Protestant religious right. Had Gore -- who didn't carry a single southern state -- taken any one of these five he would have had an Electoral College majority.

But a funny thing happened to the Democrats in the South between 1994 and 2000. They got tarred among white evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal voters by what may have been the final stage of the GOP shift that began in 1968-72. Clinton became a moral anathema -- by 2000, 40 percent to 45 percent of Americans retrospectively supported his impeachment, up from 35 percent to 38 percent during the 1998 debate -- and the effect rubbed off on Gore despite his Southern Baptist credentials and his wife's work for traditional values.

Other moderate southern winners for whom Democrats had great hopes -- Jim Hunt of North Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida, among others -- also seem to have fallen by the wayside or retired in the last decade. Too many southern white voters have decided that regional Democrats no longer have anything much to say to them. Moreover, each time the Democrats have had a southern president who disappointed Dixie, the party has paid the price -- LBJ in 1964-68, Carter in 1980 and most recently Clinton. The recent regional disaffection has been the most pervasive.

George W. Bush, who all but called for a return to national morality, achieved a restoration of the family dynasty due above all to the churchgoing white South. According to national polls in 2000, evangelicals and fundamentalists cast fully 40 percent of Bush's vote, and his 84 percent support among committed evangelicals was higher than any previous Republican nominee.

Since then, two events have further fortified Bush with this electorate. First, he invoked September 11 in ways that enabled him to become, in the eyes of many fundamentalist Christian supporters, the first U.S. president to double as the leader of the U.S. religious right. Then his 2003 invasion of Iraq was backstopped by a flurry of religious rhetoric, subtly presented to mobilize the "end times" voters and to trade on biblical analogies, not least the image of Baghdad as the new Babylon. All the while, of course, Bush has also been fortifying himself with this constituency by giving its members unprecedented patronage and input on their vital issues.

In my new book, American Dynasty, a chapter titled "The American Presidency and the Rise of the Religious Right" develops all of this in much more detail. But suffice it to say here that the GOP will be hard put to hold some of the extremely high 2000 fundamentalist and evangelical support levels that were inflated by the unusual impeachment-period hostility toward Clinton.

Moreover, a backlash against the religious right can be expected in much of the North in coming years if -- and it is a big "if" -- the Democrats can spotlight these parochialisms effectively.

2. Overindulging the South as a Drawback for a Governing National Coalition: Historically, when the South has too much influence in a governing national coalition, that coalition can be at risk. Three good examples stand out. Back in the 1820s, northern voters were sensitive to the argument that a Virginia dynasty (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe) had achieved too much dominance of national politics, and the dynasty ground to a halt. By the 1850s, the leadership role of the southern "slaveocracy" had fatally split the Democratic Party. Even in the 1950s and '60s, the influence of the South in Congress became an issue for northern liberal reformers, and southerners felt that they were being pushed out. Because of this frustration, the Republicans won the South with relatively small concessions.

Now we are in another period of southern preeminence. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the South and the religious right both increased their hold on the national GOP to a point of domination, and this remains the current state of affairs. Three facets of the national Republicans' over-southernization -- excessive domination by evangelicals and fundamentalists, unilateralist foreign policy and preemptive war (verging on Armageddonism), and extremist Texas economics in the Tom DeLay mode -- have created a potential vulnerability akin to the three earlier examples.

The Republican coalition is certainly not immune. In 1998, the GOP's over-embrace of the religious right in its impeach-Clinton crusade produced a small midterm backlash. In 2000, John McCain's confrontation with Bush over the latter's alliance with televangelists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, to say nothing of Bob Jones University, identified a major fault line in the Republican electorate. While pro-McCain voting was most evident in the North, it could also be seen in upscale sections of Virginia and South Carolina.

To some extent, this Bush-McCain cleavage in 2000 followed lines akin to those identified in mid-20th-century southern politics by political scientist V.O. Key. Urban and suburban upper-middle-class districts diverged from rural and small-town fundamentalist districts -- the division between metropolitan Atlanta and rural and small-town Georgia is the classic example. The odds are that a shrewd campaign to cast the Robertsons, Falwells and Joneses as extremists in the North would also have some success in parts of the South, as Key's state profiles and McCain's recent results suggest.

On the other hand, those who doubt that the Democrats have the skills needed to pull off such a campaign have good reason for their skepticism.

3. A Northern Strategy That Works in the South: There is little about the 2004 cast of Democratic contenders that suggests such well-honed instincts. Howard Dean's remarks about wooing southern voters with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks is a case in point.

But at some point, be it 2004 or 2008, Democrats are going to have to confront the GOP coalition in a way that challenges its particular vulnerabilities: the preemptive-war doctrine, the excessively sweeping definitions of sin and the primitive views of the congressional party on family planning, reproductive rights and even evolution. Bob Jones University is a joke in Charleston and Hilton Head, not just Boston and Madison. The fact that 50 percent to 55 percent of Bush's 2000 voters believe in Armageddon is not likely to be a recommendation on Long Island or in La Jolla, any more than on Downing Street or at New York's UN Plaza.

There is also a huge risk in the Bush dynasty's closeness to Sun Myung Moon. How many religious voters are going to like the idea that Moon sees himself, not Jesus, as the messiah? Moreover, as the 2003 tax debate in Alabama shows, there is even a growing church vote uncomfortable with a Republicanism that claims that Jesus would have much sympathy with the DeLay brand of economics. The Republicans already have such an inflated share of the southern fundamentalist and evangelical vote that the Democrats have few votes left to lose.

Whether or not Bush will face a tight race in 2004 remains to be seen. Should it happen, though, the obvious Democratic theme in the five marginal southern and border states would be economic: Bush favoritism to investors and inheritors over ordinary working Americans. The statistics are clear enough, and West Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana and Arkansas are poor states where joblessness and low wages are real problems. Florida, however, is more likely to turn on the economics of senior citizens, including the recent Medicare overhaul. The chance that the Democrats enjoyed there in 2000 may have vanished.

There is little reason to assume that "little guy" economics can outweigh the racial and religious appeal of the GOP to white voters in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia and Texas. However, race is less determinative in other parts of the South. The Democrats may be limited to mostly black congressional districts in the Deep South, but they should be able to maintain more broadly based and competitive state parties elsewhere. With luck -- and a tougher critique of GOP economics -- a modified northern presidential strategy should not block the Democrats in West Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee and Florida from maintaining a roughly even split of the 10 U.S. Senate seats and 35 percent to 40 percent of the House seats.

To be sure, I watched the Democrats fail to learn vital electoral lessons back in the 1970s and '80s, and the case can be made that many party leaders failed to appreciate other recent lessons -- that, for example, Clinton provoked a major religious disenchantment, and that, because the stock-market bubble grew up and popped on his watch, not Bush's, swing voters have not exactly flocked to hear half-hearted Democratic views on how the GOP ruined the economy.

This handicap does, in some ways, support a thesis that Democrats should just make nice with one another and wait for demographic tides to increase the nonwhite population and the ratio of secular voters to frequent churchgoers, perhaps by 2008 or 2010. The problem is that this is 2004, and a high percentage of rank-and-file Democrats feel strongly enough about vital issues to support a bold voice that makes the straddle set nervous.

My guess is that any serious Democratic national strategy is going to have to make boldness work. For all that, it may take a couple of elections -- and if the party does, even the South may sit up and take notice.