All Eyes on Dixie

And now, as candidates and journalists shake the New Hampshire snows off their boots and the primary process heads south, we can look forward to a spate of media stories raising the question of whether any Democratic presidential candidate can effectively compete in the 11 southern states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Pundits will revisit Howard Dean's maladroit remark about voters with "Confederate flag decals on their pickup trucks" and mull over last November's big GOP gubernatorial wins in the region.

There's one problem with the media's question, though: It is irrelevant. The Democratic nominee will run a strategy anchored in non-southern states. And he should, for one simple reason: It is the only way to win. The reality is that just as you will not see much of George W. Bush in Providence, R.I., a Democratic message and strategy that can successfully oust the president will be one most palatable to the party's base and to swing voters on the coasts, in the industrial Midwest and in border states, and throughout the burgeoning Southwest. The South will have little to do with it.

Here's why. Putting the Gore-Nader vote together as an indicator of underlying Democratic strength, and comparing it with the Bush-Buchanan vote, the eight closest states the Democrats won in 2000 and will have to defend in 2004 are Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin. Using the same comparison, here are the eight closest states the Democrats lost in 2000, some of which they will obviously have to win in 2004: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Tennessee. By these rankings, only two out of 16 states critical to Democratic chances are in the South. Compare that with six in the Midwest and four in the Southwest and you have a sense of the mathematical logic that is driving the Democrats to focus their 2004 presidential strategy outside the South.

That logic is reflected in the state targeting lists put out by Democratic voter-mobilization groups. For example, Steve Rosenthal's America Coming Together (ACT), which is shaping up to be the most important of these organizations, has a list of 17 targeted states, only two of which are in the South (including Florida, but with Arkansas substituted for Tennessee). The rest of ACT's list is the same as above, with the addition of Maine and the substitution of West Virginia for Colorado.

Let's face it: This ain't rocket science. The data are pretty clear on where the Democrats need to concentrate their resources, and, given that their resources are limited, they will seek to concentrate them in the most efficient manner. By and large, that's not in the South. End of story.

Or is it? Political stories are rarely so simple, and this one is no exception. There could, in fact, be negative consequences to the non-southern strategy that Democrats must avoid or mitigate if the strategy is to be politically effective in 2004 and beyond. First, by disregarding conservative southern voters, the Democrats might wind up with a message that's too far left. Second, by ignoring the South too completely, the Democrats might miss some significant political opportunities -- both short-term and long-term -- in that region. Third, by pulling the presidential campaign out of the South, down-ballot Democratic candidates in the region (especially for the Senate) could be easy pickings for the GOP. Confronting these problems head-on could make the difference between a successful strategy and one that does more to weaken than help the Democrats' chances.

One of the advantages of the non-southern strategy is that the Democratic presidential candidate won't have to try to appeal to a bloc of very conservative southern white voters who aren't likely to vote for him anyway. In Georgia, for example, more white voters say they're conservative than say they're moderate, and almost a third say they're members of the religious right. And, of course, white voters in Georgia are notoriously susceptible to racial politics around issues like the Confederate flag. A national Democratic candidate who tailors his message to these voters will likely succeed only in depressing base turnout, without any compensating electoral payoff.

The possible disadvantage is that the candidate, free from this constraint, will run too far to the left in order to please the liberal base of the Democratic Party. That would be unfortunate, as well as quite stupid. The whole point of this strategy should be to allow the Democrats to craft a clear message that both excites liberal base voters and holds appeal for moderate white swing voters, especially in the Midwest where the loss of manufacturing jobs and health-care access have hit particularly hard.

A quick look at Ohio -- perhaps the most coveted Democratic electoral target in the coming election -- illustrates this. Al Gore lost Ohio's 21 electoral votes by less than 4 points in 2000, and the combined Gore-Nader vote ran only 2 points behind the combined Bush-Buchanan vote. In that election, Gore got 41 percent of the white vote; 44 percent and he would have won the state.

The economic basis for such a modest increase should be there for Democrats in 2004. Heavily unionized Ohio (37 percent of voters are in union households, including 35 percent of white voters) has lost one-sixth of its manufacturing jobs since Bush took office, including a stunning 81,000 since November 2001, the official beginning of the current economic recovery. A strong critique of the Bush administration's economic record should fall on receptive ears. It's also worth noting that the Gore campaign basically abandoned Ohio in early October of 2000, shifting resources elsewhere; so, arguably, just having a candidate who competes in the state may get Democrats much of the additional support they need.

Finally, white voters in Ohio tend to be moderate rather than conservative. They are quite unlikely to consider themselves members of the religious right and are largely unaffected by issues like the Confederate flag. This will make it harder for Republicans to sway white voters away from their economic problems simply on cultural grounds, as the GOP can do so effectively in a southern state like Georgia.

But that doesn't mean that Democrats can relax and be as liberal as they want to be about social issues and cultural sensibilities. On the contrary, Ohio, according to a recent Pew Research Center report, is still one of the more traditional states in the country on social issues. And about half of white voters there own a gun and tend to be suspicious of Democrats' views on gun control.

This means that the non-southern strategy, if it is to succeed in a critical state like Ohio, still needs the kind of "values centrism" espoused by Bill Clinton. Yes, Democrats have to support bedrock principles like a woman's right to choose, but that support has to be framed in moral terms these voters can understand ("safe, legal and rare") and combined with moderate stances on issues like gun control (think "gun safety").

The non-southern strategy is not about running as if every state were California. It's more about running as if every state were Ohio -- true to the Democratic principles and priorities cherished by the base but attentive to the concerns of the moderate swing voters who can put you over the top.

The second potential problem with the non-southern strategy is that kissing off the South completely could mean that the Democrats would be blind to a few genuine opportunities they have there. Florida seems too tempting a target for Democrats to pass up in 2004, and, depending on the lay of the land this fall, a case could be made for fighting for a second southern state like Arkansas, Tennessee or Louisiana. And, over the longer term, demographic and economic trends that are reshaping areas in North Carolina (the Research Triangle, Charlotte), Virginia (around the D.C. suburbs) and other southern states should create a more competitive environment for Democrats across the region. The new South is not dead; it's still rising.

That's why the non-southern strategy should be seen as a matter of emphasis, not as dogma. Within this focus, there should be room for exceptions (like Florida) and the flexibility to adapt to changing opportunities in the rest of the South. A strict "forget the South" approach (as a recent New York Times Magazine article urged) actually leads away from the cardinal principle of the non-southern strategy, which is to concentrate limited resources where they're likely to do the most good. If one or two of those places are in the South, Democrats should not ignore them.

That said, Democrats should acknowledge the changing regional base of the party. Parties in America always tend to be regionalized, and the fact is that the regional base of the Democratic Party is shifting away from the South as the Republicans' regional base has shifted toward it. Indeed, the oft-cited observation that the Democrats have never won the presidency without carrying at least some southern states mostly reflects the Democrats' previous regional base rather than anything particularly meaningful for today's politics. A more useful observation is that the progressive Republicans of Teddy Roosevelt's day, whose regional bases in the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast have now been taken over by the Democrats, won the White House from 1896 to 1908 without carrying a single southern state in any election.

A final problem is that if a non-southern strategy induces the national party to move sharply left and to abandon serious competition in the region, the down-ballot implications of the strategy could be serious, indeed. This concern is sharpened by the five Senate seats vacated by incumbents that Democrats have to defend in the South: Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina.

The important point here is this: The national party needs to let southern Democrats be southern Democrats. Just as Republicans in blue states need to run well to the left of Bush to have a hope of winning local or statewide office, so, too, do Democrats in red terrain need to run well to the right of the national party to win. Kathleen Blanco, the recently elected governor of Louisiana, was almost indistinguishable from her Republican opponent on social issues: anti-abortion under virtually every scenario, against all gun control and even toying with creationism. Southern Democrats running for the Senate and House this year in hostile territory will have to do much the same dance. And the Democratic Party has to let them.

This should not be an insurmountable task; the Democrats' down-ballot prospects in the South are better than generally supposed. Recent polls show Democratic senatorial contenders Erskine Bowles and Betty Castor running ahead of potential GOP rivals in North Carolina and Florida, respectively. And if Rep. Chris John decides to run for John Breaux's seat in Louisiana, he, too, would likely be an early favorite. Even at the gubernatorial level, where Democrats have done poorly of late, the Democratic Leadership Council points out that much of this represents the continuation of an anti-incumbent voting trend, rather than a definitive rejection of the Democrats (12 of 20 southern gubernatorial elections since 1998 have resulted in a defeat for the incumbent party).

So: Run like every state is Ohio, pursue opportunities in the South selectively as they arise and let southern Democrats be southern Democrats. Let's hope the Democrats get these details right, because electoral arithmetic will dictate a non-southern strategy in 2004 no matter what objections some in the party may have. In other words, it's no longer whether but how. The latter is a proper subject for debate; the former, at this point, should not be.