Democrats Still Can’t Win the South, But It Doesn’t Matter

After affixing his signature to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lyndon Johnson famously quipped that he’d just signed away the South, a prophecy that was affirmed in that year’s election – when Republican Barry Goldwater won five historically Democratic states in the deep South while suffering blowout losses everywhere else – and in elections for decades to come.

In the post-Civil Rights era, Democrats were told over and over that their path to the presidency was basic: Nominate a candidate who could win back the South, or at least part of it. And sure enough, for 40 years after L.B.J., the only victorious Democrats at the presidential level, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, were southerners, while one northern liberal after another was shut out in the region – and locked out of the White House. If Al Gore, a native Tennessean who’d drifted from his roots, had simply won his home state or any other state in the region, he would have been elected president in 2000.

But then something funny happened last week: A liberal Democrat from Chicago, running on a ticket with a liberal from Delaware, won the White House by a comfortable margin. And while Barack Obama did actually win three states in the South, his triumph should do away with the notion that a “Southern strategy” is essential to the Democratic Party’s long-term viability at the presidential level.

First, consider that Mr. Obama racked up 365 electoral votes to John McCain’s 173 (assuming Mr. McCain’s narrow edge in Missouri holds up). Even without Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, the three Southern states where the Democratic nominee broke through, Mr. Obama would still have won 310 electoral votes – hardly a landslide victory, but still considerably more than George W. Bush notched in either of his victories. So Mr. Obama’s southern inroads were more frosting on the cake than an essential ingredient in victory.

Plus, Mr. Obama’s three southern triumphs are more a reflection of the changing nature of Florida, Virginia and North Carolina than a result of any effort by the Democratic Party to re-identify itself with the South. In Virginia and North Carolina, growing populations of more affluent and educated transplants rallied to Mr. Obama’s side, as did African-Americans. And Florida, with its diverse non-native population, has long been culturally out of step with the rest of its region. The Democratic Party didn’t come to these states – they came to the Democratic Party.

The rest of the region remains hopelessly out of reach for the party – more so than ever. Even though Mr. Obama racked up 53 percent of the national popular vote – the best for a Democrat since L.B.J. – and substantially improved on John Kerry’s and Al Gore’ s showings among just about every measurable voting bloc, he actually regressed from Mr. Kerry’s anemic ’04 levels in wide swaths of Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Arkansas.

It’s reasonable to surmise that Mr. Obama’s race was the main reason for this. The enthusiasm of black voters in these states (and of liberals at the national level) played right into the G.O.P.’s familiar strategy of fomenting cultural resentment among less educated, working-class voters. Lacking the growing pools of educated and affluent voters found in Virginia and North Carolina, these Deep South states had no trouble resisting the national Obama tide. A non-black Democratic nominee might have fared better among the white voters of these states, but that improvement would have been balanced by a less engaged black electorate. In other words, the 2008 election should make clear, if any doubters remain, that the heart of Dixie is off-limits to the national Democratic Party.

But this isn’t a net negative development for the Democrats, because Mr. Obama opened up so many new and fertile states in other parts of the country, most notably in the fast-growing Rocky Mountain states. With wins in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, he peeled off 19 electoral votes from Mr. Bush’s winning ’04 tally. He also fell inches short in Montana and would have been in prime position to win Arizona’s ten electoral votes had Mr. McCain not been the G.O.P. nominee. All told, these states account for 32 electoral votes, a total that will only rise in the decades to come. Plus, Mr. Obama also (barely) brought Indiana into line with its fellow Democratic-friendly industrial states.

The G.O.P.’s decline in these states can be chalked up in part to changing demographics, but also to the national G.O.P.’s emphasis on cultural division, a tactic that plays well in Dixie but not in the more libertarian-leaning West. Worse for the G.O.P., the party seems uninterested in changing its game plan. In the aftermath of last week’s loss, much of the base already seems to be rallying around Sarah Palin, a quintessential practitioner of the politics of cultural division.

The days of asking whether the Democrats can win the South again are over. The new question is: Can Republicans win outside of it again?

Democrats Still Can’t Win the South, But It Doesn’t Matter