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September 03, 2005

No More Northerners

Neil the Ethical Werewolf

Nobody sees the 1976 presidential election as a great moment in American history, and maybe that's why it hasn't gotten much pundit love. But the map is something to behold -- Jimmy Carter won every Southern state except for Virginia, and it wouldn't be until 1992 and Bill Clinton that Democrats would win a sizable number of Southern states again.

Importantly, Carter managed this immediately after all the events usually regarded as devastating to Democratic fortunes in the South -- the Civil Rights movement, the countercultural 1960s, the peacenikdom of 1972. A look at the preceding elections makes this even more impressive -- in 1964, Goldwater's only pocket of strength outside his Arizona home is the Deep South. 1968 has Wallace's independent candidacy shutting the Democrats out of the South. When Nixon wipes the floor with McGovern in 1972, he wins by a 47% margin in Alabama and by 38% in Arkansas. Carter carries those states by 13% and 30%.

Regionalism in America is mostly a one-way affair. New Yorkers aren't going to interpret someone's words uncharitably just because he happens to be from Georgia. But a Northerner trying to win in the South faces deep-seated regional prejudices that prevent people from interpreting his views in charitable ways. While they're willing to believe that a fellow Southerner shares their views on issues, they assume that a Northerner is going to have different values and policy priorities, and from the beginning they'll interpret his statements in accordance with those perceptions. Here's a demonstration of the kind of psychological phenomenon I'm talking about:

Bush supporters also have numerous misperceptions about Bush's international policy positions. Majorities incorrectly assume that Bush supports multilateral approaches to various international issues--the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (69%), the treaty banning land mines (72%)--and for addressing the problem of global warming: 51% incorrectly assume he favors US participation in the Kyoto treaty. After he denounced the International Criminal Court in the debates, the perception that he favored it dropped from 66%, but still 53% continue to believe that he favors it. An overwhelming 74% incorrectly assumes that he favors including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements. In all these cases, majorities of Bush supporters favor the positions they impute to Bush. Kerry supporters are much more accurate in their perceptions of his positions on these issues.

Now, these results are from the entire nation, not just the South, and the article interpreted them as the result of public identification with Bush after 9/11, not with anything regional. But it's the issue of identification that's essential here, and a lot of people in the South identify themselves strongly by their regional affiliation. They attribute their own values to people who were born in their part of the country and share their accents. Even when a Northerner agrees with them, it won't be hard to convince them that he's just pandering in order to get elected. This doesn't come out so strongly in primaries, since primary voters comprise a relatively well-informed sector of the population that will actively seek out a candidate's views on their favorite issues, without being distracted by regional affiliation. But in a general election where many voters are driven by regional stereotypes, Southerners have a huge advantage.

"Nominate a Southerner" is in no way whatsoever a code word for "concede ground on cultural issues like abortion and gay marriage." In fact, it's a way to absorb the cultural-identification advantages of the conservative position on those issues without actually conceding anything. Put Jimmy Carter's liberalism and support for desegregation into the mouth of a Connecticut Yankee, and Ford wins in 1976. But a Georgia peanut farmer can ride these positions to victory.

Even if a brilliant, articulate Northerner who shares all my political views seeks the Democratic nomination, I'm going to stuff Circe's wax in my ears and vote against him in the primaries. Making substantive policy changes means far more to me than seeing my views expressed boldly by a candidate, and if politics is anything more than a sport to you you'll feel the same way. You can only make substantive policy changes if you win, and it's Southern Democrats who win the presidency.

September 3, 2005 in Electoral Politics | Permalink


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» Figureheads for the win from Democracy Vs. The Constitution
Well you know nominating based on superficial plusses is very important to me, but we have to take it much farther than this. [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 7, 2005 2:34:37 PM


Can you say 'Wes Clark'? Raised in Little Rock, IIRC.

Posted by: exgop | Sep 3, 2005 10:16:24 AM

Neil just made me think how dependent the Democratic party is upon the South.

Sounds like the theory of the Trojan Horse. Here's the way it works in the real world. Any Southern Democrat that gets elected will not be a wild-eyed, flaming extreme left partisan as Neil envisions. Think of Clinton. He was the "New Democrat" distancing himself from the "Regular Democrat". And he was in many respects. He, also was not the loony left such as Kucinich (you see how far that got him!). No, the Democrat that is able to get elected will be exactly what Hillary is remaking herself to be. Voted for war and all appropriations. She will most likely vote to confirm Judge Roberts, etc. As she moves toward the right, she becomes the perfect political animal as Clinton was before his impeachment.

He is saying that the best strategy is a trojan horse.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Sep 3, 2005 10:20:57 AM

Personally, I'm thinking of John Edwards, who plays into every positive Southern stereotype, and has roots nowhere but Carolina. Clark was born in Chicago, but I'll agree that he partakes in some of the Southern advantages. Mark Warner benefits from this analysis as well.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Sep 3, 2005 10:31:37 AM

I'm not sure how much this matters. If Kerry had won Ohio, he'd be the president. If Gore had won New Hampshire, HE'D be the president. I don't see how southern accents, or lack thereof, have much to do with that.

Naturally, I'm not saying "just write off the South," since it's obviously important for Dems to try to be competitive everywhere they can. But I don't think that "automatically write off any candidate who isn't a Southerner" is necessarily a better idea.

Posted by: Haggai | Sep 3, 2005 11:02:20 AM

Haggai, I see 2000 as an election that we really should've won, and won in a landslide with downticket coattails. We had a great economy and any GOP advantage on foreign policy was neutralized by the fact that there weren't any major foreign policy issues in play.

2004 is a bit harder to figure, given the incredible effectiveness of Bush in capitalizing on 9/11, and the fact that so many weird things were going on at the time.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Sep 3, 2005 11:41:01 AM

Personally, I'm thinking of John Edwards


PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, let's stop the Edwards bandwagon before it starts. The guy has won one election in his entire political career and has no foreign policy experience, which, I'm sorry, will be absolute murder for any Democrat in a post-9/11 presidential election. To think otherwise is to simply delude oneself.

More to the point, though, let's step back and look at all those Democrats who lost in the non-Carter, non-Reagan years:

1984: Walter Mondale
1988: Michael Dukakis
2000: Al Gore (Southerner)
2004: John Kerry

Now, think about these candidates, and think about how they ran their various campaigns. Do you mean to tell me that their biggest problem was that they didn't have southern accents - or that in Al Gore's case, that his accent wasn't strong enough?

If these guys have anything in common, it's that they don't have a drop of charisma between the four of them, and that they ran bland, passive, reactive campaigns that allowed more aggressive Republicans to trounce them at nearly every opportunity. Which, incidentally, is one of the reasons (in addition to a term of aleful incompetence) why Carter lost in 1980, despite that rich Georgian accent of his.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Sep 3, 2005 11:43:53 AM

Lungfish, I doubt that American voters in presidential elections care about "experience" one way or another. You just have to say things that make them nod, and they'll consider you a smart guy who knows what to do.

In 2000, did anybody really associate Al Gore with Tennesee? At that point, it was the Texan versus the DC guy.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Sep 3, 2005 11:49:23 AM

That's a good point, Neil - I lived in Tennessee a while, and NO ONE thought of Gore as a "native son," and they treated him accordingly in the 2000 election.

Also - I'm gonna go THERE - I grew up in the South, and people there care very deeply about decorum, how a person acts, how they say something rather than what they say. Bush behaves in a way that they like - simple language, "jes folks" attitude. The distrust of the city slicker knows no bounds.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Unlike the rest of the country, which doesn't mind losing a Senator or representative to the beast that is Washington, Southerners expect politicians to be all there for them, to keep their hearts in the South. Because if they don't, those politicians will pay.

Posted by: Pepper | Sep 3, 2005 1:25:55 PM

Southerners expect politicians to be all there for them, to keep their hearts in the South. Because if they don't, those politicians will pay.

Yeah, it's called representation.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Sep 3, 2005 1:53:43 PM

Very interesting to look at that map. But what surprised me was to see that Ford won California!

As a bunch of people have rightly pointed out, Gore was not perceived as a Southerner, which is why his choice of Lieberman for VP made no sense even if Lieberman wasn't the horse's patoot we now know he is.

But the fact is that the Demorats do not need the South any more than the Republicans need New England.

They need the Midwest and the Southwest and those states are the ones Democrats stand the best chance of picking up. Gore won Iowa. Kerry lost it by fractions. Gore won New Mexico. Kerry came close. And he came very close in Nevada. Arizona is in play.

Texas! Texas may be in play next time out because the Republicans won't be nominating a native son.

A Democrat who can do well in the Southwest and the Midwest would also stand a chance of picking up a Southern state or two.

It would also be nice if we could find somebody who comes across well on TV. I think it's time the Democrats took away the opening rounds of the primaries from Iowa and New Hampshire. Whatever moves Democrats there when they choose a candidate is obviously a quality that comes across negatively on national television. Carter's southern accent didn't matter as much as the way his smile came across on TV. My mother says that Carter lost her when he stopped smiling, which he did halfway through his term. Something to that.

Posted by: Lance Mannion | Sep 3, 2005 2:26:48 PM

It looks so weird to see New York and New Jersey voting differently in a presidential election.

Posted by: Justin Slotman | Sep 3, 2005 2:55:09 PM

Nice post, Neil, but didn't Carter also project a lot of the "bringing the Democrats back" / "reforming the party" aura? That's a winning thing. That was Bush's schtick in 2000 -- "A different kind of Republican". Clinton's in 1992 -- "A different kind of Democrat". Dukakis the neoliberal's in 1988 until after the convention (his very standard nominating speech didn't help and Bush painted him as an old Democrat, which then meant McGovern Democrat.) Kerry IMO ran as a very standard old Democrat which by 2004 had even less cachet than when Gore tried it with mixed success in 2000. And also fitting tha pattern, by 1980, Carter had pissed off his Christian white support in the south as "just another liberal Democrat" and liberals in the north as "just another southern conservative Democrat".

The dynamic at work -- which plays slightly against incumbants and helps IMO to explain the 2000 result -- is that people really really want two functioning parties. We have the same dynamic in Canada which makes the Conservatives dangerous if they can get their act together (which seems unlikely). When one party looks hopeless like the Repubs did post-impeachment, people look for somebody to lead them out of the wilderness. Bush's campaign played that to the hilt with "compassionate conservatism".

The real power of a southerner in 2008, IMO, is that Kerry, the very standard party nominee from 2004 (and I love Kerry) was a northerner and the next guy needs to "reform" us from Kerryness. Not because Kerryness is bad but because breaking with it reinforces the needed symbolism that the next nominee is reforming us again and leading us back from the brink.

We need a new "New Covenant". I'm a yellowdog but I'm going to stick the wax in my ears and support whoever has the best "reform" message, even if it's fake, because IMO that's what wins.

Posted by: tlaura | Sep 3, 2005 3:16:30 PM

Neil is not the first to this analysis, and that is entirely the point. By putting all our electability in the South in one basket, we risk a lot.

Clinton was nominated for just these reasons (along with charisma and moderation). He was a southerner, and was supposed to win it for us. Well, he did. Except by just focusing on his Arkansasness, we did nothing to raise support for Democratic issues or polity. They were easily convinced to dislike his policy, they didn't support Congressional Dems, and once he was finished off with a character-values killing blow on Monica, the Democratic party became radioactive there.

Also, an interesting way to analyze your theory neil would be to compare how Southern dems do vs Northern dem canidates AGAINST congressional dems in those districts in the same years.

Posted by: Tony Vila | Sep 3, 2005 3:44:28 PM

At the risk of being contrarian, it's not mission critical tha Democrats nominate a Southerner in 2008. Though, I agree that nominating someone from the Northeast is bad news, because there's no more advantage to be had there.

Dems can also expand the map, rather than constantly try to thread the needle of Pacific Coast-Northeast-Industrial Midwest-Florida, by nominating someone from the Mountain West. Right now Democrats are ascendant in the mountain west, gaining seats at the state level in Utah and Montana, holding governorships in Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, and Arizona. That's much better than the state of play in the South, where Mark Warner isn't really Southern and Phil Bredesen is lame, leaving Mike Easley.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Sep 3, 2005 3:48:53 PM

Lungfish, I doubt that American voters in presidential elections care about "experience" one way or another.

Frankly, you're completely wrong, at least when it comes to Democrats. Democrats are perceived as being weaker on national security and have been for thirty years; they need someone who looks, acts, and IS strong on defense. John Kerry never looked or sounded the part, despite his credentials (Ezra among others has gone in depth into this); Wes Clark, on the other hand, has the resume and the image - he just looks and sounds like a general.

John Edwards has neither the record nor the look: he has one term in the senate under his belt, and talks about terror the same way he talks about poverty - through a series of drippy personal anecdotes ("I was in Israel the day a pizzeria was bombed and it was just awful..."). This shows an astonishing lack of instinct: what works in connecting people with economic issues does not work in connecting people with defense issues. Americans can connect to class issues through empathy, but connect to defense issues primarily through fear and anger. They look for leaders to assuage that fear by reassuring them that they're ready to blow up the enemy; they don't want to hear from someone who tells them he'll feel their pain after some terrorist blows them up.

What, historically speaking, makes anyone think Edwards is actually an effective politician? Once again, he has won one election - one - in his entire political career. He won one primary - in the state of his birth, if not, curiously enough, the state he served as senator in (Dean won Vermont, even after he'd dropped out). His career as a running mate was mediocre at best and embarrasing at worst: he was a toothless attack dog, and he swung no states for Kerry. He appears attractive solely for his qualities as a speaker, but if Edwards demonstrates anything, it's that good speaking skills clearly aren't sufficient to succeed in politics. Hillary Clinton is more electable than John Edwards, and I do not intend that as a compliment for Hillary Clinton.

As for Al Gore not being southern enough: was Jimmy Carter not southern enough in 1980? Because he sure as hell got his ass kicked by a guy from Hollywood. And in kicking Carter's ass, Reagan didn't affect a southern accent: he attacked him as weak on national security while stealing the white evangelicals Carter had won over in 1976 (in case we forget so quickly, Carter won the support of Pat Robertson and company over the pro-choice, non-god-talking Gerald Ford). To look at this as a straight North-South issue is so reductionist as to be downright foolish.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Sep 3, 2005 3:56:31 PM

Pepper, the "jes' folks" attitude is exactly what I mean when I talk about stuff that will get Southerners to identify with a candidate.

Lance, I agree that the Democrats don't "need" the South. But this is kind of beside the point -- advantages on the electoral map are fungible, and there's no one thing you need if you can get another. A big boost in the South that costs us little anywhere else would be a great thing to have. Maybe you're saying, though, that we're so far down in the South that such a boost wouldn't win us any states. I really don't know how the math works out here -- Kerry did lose lots of Southern states by double-digit margins. However, he lost no Southern state as badly as McGovern lost Alabama and Arkansas in 1972, only to see Carter win them big in '76. Kerry didn't really try for Arkansas, Virginia, or Louisiana, the latter of which may be a whole lot bluer (and not just from satellite photos) in 2008.

tlaura, I think the nicest part of the "reform Democrat" position is that it allows people to evade negative Democratic stereotypes that the Republicans can pound away at. Back in Clinton's day, it was the big-government, tax-and-spend thing. Being a "reform Democrat" was a good way to escape that stereotype. And definitely after Watergate, reform anything was cool. The question is, what are the current negative party stereotypes that we need to attack? One of the primary negative stereotypes of the present, at least in the South and rural areas, is the effete-urban-elitist / city-slicker thing. My guess is that there's a pretty big overlap between this and Kerryness. In the South, there may be room to be a new kind of Democrat -- specifically, one who brings the party back to its pro-working-people roots.

Nick, I hadn't heard of the non-Southernness of Warner. Can you tell me more about this? In particular, is this something that can be finessed? Bush isn't really a Texan, but buying that Crawford ranch in 1999 went a long way to make him look like one. If Warner can pull a trick like that, he's in good shape.

Lungfish, you have given zero evidence to suggest that the American people put any sort of premium on experience. And a long record, even if it's a very good one, can easily be distorted and picked apart as Kerry's was. A short foreign policy record is more helpful because it offers less to distort. Characterizations of Edwards as a "toothless attack dog" completely forget what Kerry wanted him to do in 2004, particularly in the VP debate. Edwards was there primarily to build up Kerry, not to tear down Bush. Twenty-three times during the debate, Edwards told the audience that Kerry had a plan for some big problem that Bush didn't. Finally, be aware that our 2008 front-runner has won exactly one election in her career too, and on much more favorable turf than Edwards. I have no idea why you think she's more electable than he is. Look at the favorable/unfavorable ratings for the 4 top-ticket candidates of 2004, and you'll see that at every stage of the campaign, Edwards was leading everyone else.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Sep 3, 2005 6:17:10 PM

This situation is reminiscent of Canada, where every major Prime Minister since 1968 (Trudeau, Mulroney, Chrétien and Martin) can qualify as Québec native sons.

Ontario doesn't seem to mind too much (they still provide a majority of ministers and MPs) but the rants that can be heard from the Western provinces!

Posted by: PierreB | Sep 3, 2005 8:22:42 PM

Just ask all the Democrats who in the primaries "strategically" backed Kerry because he was the "best chance we had in November" where thinking like this gets you.

Posted by: mike | Sep 3, 2005 9:41:41 PM

Mike, I was screaming my head off back in January that Edwards had huge electability advantages over Kerry. People are going think like this, and I'm trying to make sure they do it properly and not dumbly.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Sep 4, 2005 2:26:05 PM

Speaking as a Southerner, my only bone of contention with Neil's analysis is the suggestion that while Southerners are suspicious of city slickers, Northerners are enlightened rational agents w/r/t a candidate's regional ties. Exhibit A is the very popular (even I linked to it on my blog) map that circulated in the wake of the 2004 presidential election, suggesting that the enlightened coasts secede and depicting the South and the Midwest as "Jesusland." Northern liberals will vote for a Southern liberal and Southern liberals will vote for a Northern liberal. But when it comes to persuading someone to switch their affiliation, Northerners are not going to be sympathetic to a redneck and Southerners are not going to be sympathetic to a yankee. The real testimony here is to the power of the Southern conservative mentality; it is unlikely but not logically impossible that things could be the reverse: that Northern liberalism could dominate the political scene and the GOP could not nominate a Southerner or else he'd be laughed out of court for being a closet Jesus freak. The dems have got to nominate a Southerner because they have got to change a lot of unsympathetic minds. If Southerners believed they agreed with the substance of Democratic policy (I use the meta-sounding wording because I believe, as Neil does, that Southerners actually do agree with Dems on substance, they just don't realize it), they would not care about the accents of Democratic politicians.

Posted by: YMSP82 | Sep 4, 2005 3:54:56 PM

Where does Watergate fit in this analysis?

Posted by: Omar | Sep 4, 2005 7:08:12 PM

Tony, I'd love to see an analysis of the kind you're talking about, which compares the congressional numbers to the presidential ones in Southern districts.

Brandon, I think the USC/Jesusland chart was mostly a product of short-term post-election irritation. There's really nothing deep-seated there. And my question is really about whether Southern independents are amenable to being convinced by a Northern liberal. I'm saying that in general they're not, while Northern independents can be convinced by a Southern liberal.

Omar, I'm sure that Watergate plays a big role in explaining why Carter won. But I don't think it'll be sufficient to explain the entirety of Carter's boost in the South. Is there any reason why Watergate would play so much more heavily in the South than in other regions? Those Alabama / Arkansas numbers are insane. We're talking about a 30+ percent boost for Carter over McGovern in each state. That's way more than his 12% boost over McGovern nationwide.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Sep 4, 2005 9:27:57 PM

Carter lost California, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, and New Jersey. Twice. Recent history shows just how hard it is for a Democrat to lose in those states.

Tell me again how a Southerner plays just as well outside of the South. I need more humor in these grim days.

Posted by: aretino | Sep 5, 2005 8:39:47 AM


Lok, the OSuth is dead to the Dems. I have lived all over the country, and the SOuth is dead. Being a Dem means having to kill TennCare. period. End of Story. Nominating a Southener certianly means giving into conservative values because Southeners don't vote agaisnt Northerners, they vote FOR conservatives.

If you want to win without being the GOP, then you need to accept the fact that the South is gone and concetrate on the Midwest and the West. The GOP is not a national party -- it is a Southern party that has been allowed to get away with pretending to be a national party becasue the Dems reacted poorly to the end stages of the switch of the politics in the South.

Posted by: kevin | Sep 6, 2005 11:35:31 AM

Why worry about the South anyway? Its a matter of simple math.
Between Oregon, Washington State, Hawaii, and California are 77 electoral votes. Every Democrat from 1988 onward has won these states (except for California in 1988). These four states are a distinct electoral advantage over the 12 NON-Southern GOP states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, N. Dakota, S. Dakota, ndiana, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Alaska, Arizona, and MOntana. Those 12 states have only 63 electoral votes.
As for the South, the 12 southern states (11 Old Confederacy plus Kentucky) are worth 161 electoral votes. The 16 Northeast and Midwest states that every Democrat since 1992 has won (except for the Nader driven error of NH in 2000) equal 175 electoral votes. 14 more votes than the South.
Don't forget two other important lessons from 2004:
1. 57% of households make less than $50,000. But they only made up 45%! of the VOTING ELECTORATE in 2004.
2. Kerry won the under $50,000 crowd 55%-44% nationally and won a majority of their votes in 34! states. Neither Clinton or Gore got as large a percent of the vote form the bottom three income quintiles as Kerry got.
Forget about winsurfing or where Kerry was from, etc. It doesn't matter. In this election, the Reagan Democrats (who mostly hailed from the West, Midwest, and Northeast) finally came home!. Had they made up a slightly greater percent of the voting electorate, Kerry wins!
As for the South in particular, I can see paying close attention to Florida, and maybe Texas in a decade or so. Other than that, Kevin's comments that "The GOP is not a national party -- it is a Southern party that has been allowed to get away with pretending to be a national party becasue the Dems reacted poorly to the end stages of the switch of the politics in the South," is about as good a summation as I've ever heard.

Posted by: Nick | Jan 13, 2006 4:54:08 PM

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