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Obama camp thinks Dems can rise in South

As they look to the fall election, Democrats face a strategic decision that has bedeviled their party for 40 years: How hard should they fight in the South?
Image: Barack Obama speaks to supporters as Senator Jim Webb, D-Va, looks on during a rally in Bristow, Virginia
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama speaks to supporters at a rally at Nissan Pavilion on June 5 in Bristow, Virginia. Virginia's Senator Jim Webb looks on. Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The New York Times

As they look to the fall election, Democrats face a strategic decision that has bedeviled their party for 40 years: How hard should they fight in the South?

And how does having Senator Barack Obama at the top of the ticket affect that calculation?

Officials in Mr. Obama’s campaign say they are bullish on the South, and they have signaled their aggressiveness with early campaign appearances in North Carolina and Virginia, major voter registration drives in the region, and television advertising in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

Steve Hildebrand, the deputy campaign manager for Mr. Obama, said he saw “tremendous potential” in several Southern states.

“If you go in and look at the number of unregistered voters in demographic groups that are important to Barack’s candidacy — younger voters, African-American voters — the potential is just incredible,” Mr. Hildebrand said.

And yet since the South began to shift away from the Democrats in the 1960s, it has become one of the biggest and reddest of the Republican strongholds. In the last two presidential elections, the Democrats failed to carry any of the Southern states. Although recent Democratic nominees have typically gotten about 9 out of 10 of the votes of Southern blacks, they still need a substantial chunk of the white vote to prevail. Political scientists put that figure at close to 40 percent, though it depends on the state, and the Democrats have rarely gotten it.

Even after selecting a Southerner, John Edwards of North Carolina, as his running mate in 2004, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts drew 29 percent of the white vote in the region (17 percent in the Deep South). In 2000, Al Gore got 31 percent, even losing his home state, Tennessee.

The only times since 1972 that the Democrats have carried more than a third of the Southern white vote, according to exit polls, were when Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, both Southerners, were atop the ticket. In 1996, for example, Mr. Clinton got the votes of 36 percent of Southern whites and 87 percent of Southern blacks, and carried 5 of the 13 Southern states.

Mr. Obama’s Southern strategy relies on significantly increasing black registration and turnout, as he did in the primary season. Mr. Hildebrand said that by some estimates there are 600,000 unregistered black voters in Georgia alone. The higher the black share of the vote, the lower the requirement for garnering white votes. But the Obama camp argues that it can increase its share of the white vote as well by focusing on younger, more progressive whites.

Democratic candidates have typically written off many Southern states early in the process. But when Democrats give up the South, they need to win 70 percent of the rest of the electoral votes, said Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University. And they often subject candidates running for lower offices in the region to fierce political headwinds: it is hard for a statewide candidate to prevail when his party’s presidential nominee loses by double digits.

“We’ve not only lost in Mississippi, we’ve lost by 20 points in Mississippi,” said Ray Mabus, the former governor of Mississippi and a senior adviser to Mr. Obama.

Mr. Mabus added: “It’s not only Democrats who’ve been writing off Mississippi. It’s Republicans, too, because they felt safe.”

The Obama campaign’s interest in the South, Mr. Mabus said, is already heightening the competition there. He noted that Senator John McCain had been to Mississippi since clinching the Republican nomination. “I don’t think he would have come if he thought it was a mortal lock,” Mr. Mabus said.

Southern Democrats have often felt left out of their party’s presidential calculations. From Reconstruction to the 1960s, the South was essentially a one-party region: Democratic. But voters’ allegiance was rocked in the 1960s by the Democrats’ leadership in passing civil rights legislation, and whites began to move to what Republicans asserted was their more natural ideological home.

This was exacerbated, many Southern Democrats believe, by the national party’s habit of nominating Northern liberals who campaigned little in the region. But the Democrats who ran those campaigns said they had to devote their resources to the states where polls showed they had the best chance of prevailing.

“We started out with a pretty broad playing field, with the intention of putting more states in play than had been put into play before,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who worked for Mr. Kerry in 2004, noting that the Kerry campaign competed early on in Virginia.

“At a certain point, we needed to make a decision on whether to continue to compete in states that weren’t likely to pay off and drain money from states that could,” Mr. Mellman said.

But this time, the resources argument would be less compelling because Mr. Obama is expected to have a sizable financial edge over his rival, given his decision to forgo public campaign money and the spending limits that accompany it. And, some Democrats who work in the South argue, writing off a region is simply the wrong thing to do.

“How do you tell 102 million people who live in the South that they don’t matter?” said Steve Jarding, a Democratic consultant who has worked on several Southern campaigns. This year, he added, the region should be open to a Democratic argument on economics.

But some contend that the building blocks of a Democratic electoral majority lie elsewhere, notably the Southwest. That argument was laid out in 2006 in “Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South,” by Thomas F. Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“The notion that the Democrats have to win in the South is just a fiction,” Dr. Schaller said.

Some Democrats say the Obama registration drive could have unintended consequences, spurring a higher turnout among whites planning to vote Republican. But Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, said he considered that unlikely.

“Older whites who are most likely to have traditional racial attitudes are probably already registered and may have records of consistent participation,” Dr. Bullock said.

As Mr. Mabus put it, “I’m sure some won’t vote for him because he’s African-American, but I’m pretty sure those people wouldn’t vote for any Democrat.”

Mr. Obama’s race aside, his ideology is a significant hurdle in the South, if history is any guide. Mr. Clinton broke the Republicans’ hold in 1992 in part by running as a decidedly centrist Democrat — pro-death penalty, pro-welfare reform, for the “forgotten middle class.” He was also helped by Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy, which drained votes from the Republicans.

In the Republican camp, strategists say that for all the difficulties the party is facing, the South remains deeply conservative.

“It would take an awful big shift in the electorate this year,” said Mike DuHaime, a senior adviser to the McCain campaign. “It’s not like we’re talking about states that were won by one or two points last time. These Southern states, with the exception of Virginia and Florida, were double-digit wins.”

Mr. DuHaime acknowledged that Virginia, whose northern suburbs have become more Democratic in recent years, would be competitive this year. But he maintained that Mr. McCain, more than many Republicans, should have substantial appeal to moderate and independent voters.

Gordon Giffin, a Democratic activist in the South and an ambassador to Canada in the Clinton administration, said the economy and the Iraq war had created “more available white voters in the South this time than we’ve had in recent memory.” Southern Democrats always argue for more attention from the national party, and Mr. Giffin acknowledged, “Sometimes we know we’re full of hot air.”

He added, “This time it’s different.”

This story, Obama Camp Thinks Democrats Can Rise in South, originally appeared in The New York Times.