The Democrats’ Southern Strategy
The thinking behind the Edwards pick.


–So John Edwards is John Kerry’s pick for vice president. The Democratic candidates and political consultants I’ve talked to in the past few weeks–the latter running candidates mostly but not exclusively in southern and border states–aren’t surprised, but delighted. They’ve been telling me about an emerging “Southern Strategy” for the national Democratic party for 2004, a strategy that Edwards is well-suited to help carry out. While opposed by party leaders who thought the Democrats’ future lay elsewhere, the plan apparently made sense to Kerry. I can understand why. It sounds plausible, perhaps even sensible.

In the presidential race, the idea is to break the mold cast by the conventional wisdom in Washington and shoving Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina into the ranks of so-called “battleground states.” The problem for Kerry is that while the national race is a dead-heat, he’s the challenger–he can’t allow the contest to be narrowed to a short list of battleground states, as that allows the defending incumbent to select and prepare the battlefields for combat. Kerry must take the initiative and force Bush to defeat more territory.

Republicans and some Democratic dissidents have dismissed this notion by arguing that the south is a lost cause for the national Democratic ticket and that in any event John Edwards won’t help much. Both assumptions are incorrect. Bush still leads in the peripheral southern states the Democrats are targeting, but the margins are anemic: just five to seven points in North Carolina, probably something similar in Virginia, and by perhaps ten points in Tennessee. Florida was already a battleground state. Even a couple of deep-south states, Louisiana and South Carolina (Edwards’s native state), could be in play for Democrats in their best-case scenario.

Why is Republican dominance of the region threatened? The jobs issue is important, particularly as public perceptions of the strength of the economic recovery continue (as usual) to lag behind the reality. Republican-leaning areas in the western Carolinas and eastern Tennessee suffered among the sharpest reversals of fortunes in the country during the recent recession. But that’s not the whole story. Another factor is the potential for turnout among black voters, always critical to Democratic chances in statewide contests in the south. Democrats believe that Kerry can tap into a deep reservoir of animosity among African Americans towards Bush–don’t ask me to explain it, although the myth of vote suppression in Florida is probably central–and they expect Edwards to be immensely helpful in translating this sentiment into votes. He’s enjoyed a good relationship with black leaders and voters in North Carolina, while also showing during the presidential primaries that his “pessimism with a sunny face” shtick worked to draw in swing-voter groups such as moderate whites and professional women.

Edwards isn’t just expected to be an asset in the south, however. He is simply a better campaigner than Kerry on the stump, much better. Indeed, some doubted Kerry would pick him because of the risk of being overshadowed. That was never realistic–vice presidents don’t have that much stature–and besides, Kerry’s goal is to win, not place with style. Edwards will spend a lot of time in border states such as West Virginia and Missouri (where he is probably more popular than Dick Gephardt among Democratic activists) as well as midwestern states such as Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio where Democratic chances are predicated on turning out urban black voters and wooing white moderates in suburbs and small towns.

It’s important to understand, however, that while the main goal for Democrats in 2004 is to beat President Bush, it isn’t the only goal. Republicans exultant about their off-and-on control of both houses of Congress since 1994 should try to imagine the corresponding, crushing sense of loss that Democrats feel. This just isn’t the natural order of things! We’re supposed to be in charge of Capitol Hill! We’re supposed to own the lobbying shops and control the political chatter around D.C! Democrats are desperate to take back the U.S. Senate and, eventually, the House.

In the first case, there are five Democrat-held open seats in the south on the ballot this year: in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana. While Georgia may well be a lost cause, the others are winnable for Democrats, contrary to the partisan spin coming from some GOP quarters. Edwards on the ticket, and on the ground in these states often through November, certainly will boost Democrats’ chances here, again by exciting African Americans (Kerry hasn’t shown an ability to do that) and taking the Northeast-liberal tinge off the ticket a bit for culturally conservative but economic distressed whites.

Democrats even have some long-term dreams about the House. Given the way past court decisions and new computer technology have conspired to slice and dice House districts, the most likely way to regain control is by winning clear legislative majorities in states likely to add or subtract seats in 2010. Interestingly, a recent Supreme Court decision in Georgia appears to have opened the door for Democrats by allowing so-called “minority” districts to have fewer minority voters and still comply with the Voting Rights Act. Here’s the regional rhyme once more: opportunities exist in several southern and border states to redraw the maps to pack Republican voters, redistribute black voters, and thus create new seats where Democrats are at least competitive.

As I said, this strategy is based on plausible assumptions and is admirably audacious. Gephardt would have been a “safer” statesman choice, Tom Vilsack, a safer battleground and regional choice. To pick Edwards is essentially to pick a fight with the Republicans on their territory, and to up the political stakes down the ballot. But it may still fail. For one thing, Democrats engage in wishful thinking when they say that economic issues are more important than cultural ones among the white voters they’ve lost in middle America. It won’t be as easy as they think to brush matters of such deep concern aside. There’s also the risk–gosh, some might even call it a hope–that the nation’s economic recovery will continue apace through the summer and fall, generating rising optimism and confidence about the future. A heartening sign is that recent attempts by both Democrats and (in primaries) Republicans to play the protectionist card in job-starved parts of the south have mostly bombed.

Still, I think Kerry has probably played his best card. Republicans can’t afford to bluff their way out of this one.

John Hood is president of the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation, a state policy think tank, and author of the forthcoming Selling the Dream: Why Advertising is Good Business.


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