Can Democrats Win In the South by Being More Liberal?

It isn't accurate to call Mary Landrieu "the last Southern Democrat," as one headline after another put it in the days leading up to and following her defeat in Saturday’s runoff election in Louisiana. While it's true that Republicans now control almost all the Senate seats, governorships, and legislatures of the 11 states of the old confederacy (the exceptions are found in Virginia and Florida), there are quite a few Democratic elected officials left in the South—but few of them were elected statewide, and a large proportion of them are black.

For years, Democrats have tried to hold on in the South by appealing to the white voters who have steadily drifted away from them. That strategy has failed. Their future in the South—and they can have one—would start with black and Latino voters and work outward from there. It would be almost the exact opposite of how Democrats have been running statewide in recent years.

No one expected Landrieu to hold on for a third term in the Senate, notwithstanding her decades in office or her family's famous New Orleans name (her father is a former mayor; her brother is mayor now). Louisiana is a deeply Republican state, one that has only grown more Republican in recent years. Or it's more accurate to say that, just as in other states in the region, white Louisianans have grown more Republican. This may be the most telling piece of data about Landrieu's decline, from Politico: "During the open primary election last month, Landrieu won just 18 percent of the white vote, according to exit polls, compared to 33 percent six years ago."

Eighteen percent may be abysmal, but Barack Obama did even worse among Louisiana's whites. While there were no exit polls there in 2012, in 2008, he got only 14 percent of the white vote. Only in Alabama and Mississippi were his losses among whites more complete; he got 10 percent in the former and 11 percent in the latter.

So is the South now lost for Democrats? The problem with that question is that it lumps together states that are very different. Some states may indeed be lost, at least in the near future. But others are not. Democratic chances are a function of two variables: the proportion of non-white voters, and the particular kind of white voters, in each state.

Landrieu's loss is being described by some as the end point of a process that began in the 1960s, when Democrats became the party of civil rights and white Southerners began their migration to the GOP. That movement was slow but inexorable, and the election of Barack Obama solidified the idea in the South that the Republican Party is where white people naturally belong. Recent racial controversies have no doubt reinforced the division; as Ed Kilgore recently wrote, "I've just spent nearly a week back home in exurban Atlanta, and I regret to report that the events in and in reaction to Ferguson have brought back (at least in some of the older white folks I talked with) nasty and openly racist attitudes I haven't heard expressed in so unguarded a manner since the 1970s."  

But Georgia is a state that looks to be competitive for Democrats, and it isn't because the whites there aren't overwhelmingly Republican (only 23 percent of them voted for Obama in 2008). It's because of a rising population of blacks and Latinos. Other states, like North Carolina, have a growing minority population and a healthy number of white liberals (even if it's nothing close to a majority of whites) that can bring 50 percent of the vote within reach.

So how can Democrats win with this kind of coalition? Not only does the old playbook for white Southern Democrats—emphasize your independence from the national party, brandish totems of cultural affinity (i.e., shoot some guns), bring home the bacon—not work anymore, there's an alternative: Be a more loyal Democrat.

To be clear, I'm not just saying that given a choice between a fake Republican and a real Republican, voters will choose the real Republican every time. Strong liberals, like strong conservatives, tend to think that the answer to nearly every defeat can be found in more ideological faithfulness; sometimes that's true and sometimes it isn't. What I am saying is that the only viable Democratic path in much of the South is to essentially forget about the conservative whites—they're Republicans now, and that isn't going to change. 

In some places in the South—Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas—the coalition of minorities and liberal whites is just too small to win statewide, no matter what. But in other places—North Carolina now, and eventually Georgia and Texas—it could be enough, given the right circumstances.

Winning with that coalition requires a mobilization strategy, in contrast to the persuasion strategy so many Southern Democrats have used in the past. It means putting all your energy into getting those Democrats registered and voting, and not wasting time convincing unpersuadable white conservatives that you aren't like those other Democrats they see on TV. In fact, it just might require being more liberal, because that will be a stronger motivator for the liberal coalition. When a Southern Democrat bashes the national party, it usually fails to win over the white conservatives they're after, and it dampens the enthusiasm of reliably Democratic voters. So a greater emphasis on the things that distinguish Democrats from Republicans could give them more of a chance to win, particularly in presidential election years when turnout will already be higher.

I'll admit that there are places where this approach would inevitably fall short. But those are precisely the places where Democrats are all but guaranteed to lose anyway. A proudly liberal Democrat isn't going to do any worse in South Carolina than a Democrat who tries to convince voters that he can't stand his own party. This approach would have the added benefit of not making Democrats look weak and unprincipled, as they so often appear by the end of a campaign in the South. 

And it isn't like they have a lot of other options. Why not give it a try?

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