The Party of the South and Nowhere Else

In the middle of the 20th century, the national Democratic Party was being pulled in two radically different and fundamentally incompatible directions, the most loyal components of its coalition divided by racial politics.

Since the Civil War, the party’s most reliable base of support had been in the South, where voters were known to boast that they’d sooner cast a ballot for a yellow dog than for a Republican. At the same time, Democrats also leaned on big-city machines in the North, whose leaders – heeding the cries of liberals like Hubert Humphrey – had concluded that their continued hegemony depended on reaching out to black voters.

For a while, the party tried to finesse the dispute, with mixed results. In 1948, Southerners walked out of the convention and nominated South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond to run as a third-party candidate; he snagged four states worth 38 electoral votes, but – amazingly – Harry Truman still managed a slim Electoral College majority. The South largely returned to the Democratic fold in 1952, 1956 and 1960, but in 1964 President Lyndon Johnson was forced to choose once and for all between the two regions. As he prophesized at the time, his signature on that year’s Civil Rights Act essentially signed the South away.

From that point, a decades-long political realignment unfolded, one that mostly favored the Republican Party. A solid South helped elect one G.O.P. president after another, and ultimately produced a Republican Congress in 1994. By 2004, when George W. Bush and that Republican Congress were reelected with essentially unanimous Southern support, G.O.P. boasts of a “permanent Republican majority” were widely accepted as fact.

But what wasn’t appreciated in 2004 is, in the wake of the 2006 and 2008 elections, finally becoming clear now: The realignment triggered during the civil rights era triggered another realignment, with other regions of the country reacting to the Southern dominance of the Republican Party.

The first signs of this, in hindsight, were evident in the mid-1990s, when the Northeast, once a region defined by progressive Republicanism, shifted dramatically into the Democratic fold. The trigger was the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, when the culturally conservative Southerners who’d begun drifting to the G.O.P. in 1964, declared their takeover complete by taking charge of the U.S. House.

Independent voters in the North, who had long seen the G.O.P. as a fiscally conservative party that had among its members a scattering of Southern lunatics, could no longer fool themselves. States like New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont, once very competitive at the presidential level, painted themselves deep blue. New Jersey, for instance, voted for Ronald Reagan twice and George H. W. Bush in 1988, and Bill Clinton won the state by just two points in 1992. But in 1996, two years after the G.O.P. revolution, the state sided with Clinton by 18 points, and it hasn’t been competitive since.

In 1994, eight Republicans held Congressional seats in New England, including two in Massachusetts. That number has done nothing but decline since then, and with the defeat of Christopher Shays in Connecticut last week, it has hit zero. In ’94, five New England Republicans served in the Senate; today there are two. And Northeast states that already leaned toward Democrats have only grown more blue. Fueled by the defection of educated suburbanites outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has been reliably Democratic in the last five presidential elections. Maryland and Rhode Island now regularly produce some of the widest Democratic margins in the country. And New York, after 40 years, has finally elected a Democratic majority in its state senate.

It’s just as true now as it was 50 years ago that the themes that resonate in the South are met with revulsion in the North, and vice versa. Just as it took some time for Southern voters to realize the extent and depth of the national Democratic Party’s abandonment of them, it’s taken a while for the Northeast to fully reject the G.O.P. But now, up and down the ballot, the region is overwhelmingly Democratic.

But that’s not the end of the story for the G.O.P., which could survive even without winning a single Northeast state; after all, the region, thanks to stagnant and declining populations, is only waning in influence. The problem is that the early signs of a similar realignment are now evident in other regions

Just consider the electoral map produced by last week’s election. John McCain handily won solid victories in nine Southern and border states (including West Virginia, even though it isn’t technically a border state) worth 69 electoral votes. Add in a handful of Prairie and Western states worth 22 electoral votes (Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Kansas and all of Nebraska except one congressional district) and you have what has become the die-hard Republican base – 91 predominantly Southern electoral votes.

Where can the G.O.P. build on this in future elections? Well, the Northeast is out of the question, as long as the party continues to be a vehicle for the Deep South. Plus, the Northernization of Virginia, Florida and North Carolina has made those states somewhat resistant to the appeals that have worked so well for the G.O.P. in the heart of Dixie. While the G.O.P. can win all of those states in the near future – McCain came very close to doing so, particularly in North Carolina – the longer-term prognosis is questionable. Georgia, which McCain won by five points, is probably safe for the G.O.P. for now, but it is also changing (albeit more slowly).

Texas has also been an anchor state in the G.O.P.’s Southern strategy, and its 34 electoral votes — a number likely to increase in the next round of redistricting — will probably be safe for the G.O.P. (except in a landslide) for the next few elections. But the growing clout of Hispanic voters, who have swung sharply to the Democrats in ’06 and ’08, portends more long-term trouble for a G.O.P. defined by narrow Southern interests.

Without a lock on the South and with no chance to make inroads in the North, that leaves the Midwest and the Rocky Mountain states as future targets for the G.O.P.

But here, too, their Southern strategy seems to have caught up with them. Colorado, Nevada and Mew Mexico – worth a combined 19 electoral votes – defected from the G.O.P. fold this year, a combination of rising Hispanic influence and a turn against the G.O.P. by independents. New Mexico and Nevada, which gave Obama lopsided victories, may be lost for good for Republicans; Colorado could still be competitive. Arizona, where McCain’s home-state status keyed his win, is in danger of slipping from the G.O.P. column for the same reasons, as is Montana, where McCain narrowly won. Voters in these states, like those in the Northeast 14 years ago, seem to be deciding that they don’t want to be identified with a party that defines itself by culturally divisive politics.

The Midwest, where McCain lost every state to Obama, is at least theoretically a better target for the G.O.P. going forward, since it does contain many socially conservative voters who are willing to live with the kind of rhetoric that plays in the South. McCain had limited success tapping into these voters, but the task might have been impossible this year – they are more liberal on economic issues and, with the collapse of the economy, were furious with the ruling Republican Party.

If the G.O.P. is intent on pursuing its Southern strategy in the years ahead, it must realize that this will mean not just writing off the Northeast, but also wide swaths of the West and the South itself. The only hope for the party, then, would be to break through in the Midwest, which would mean balancing cultural conservatism with an economic populism that could play in the Rust Belt. This, needless to say, would be a wholesale departure from the party’s traditions of fiscal conservatism. But it may be the only way to build a winning coalition.

The Party of the South and Nowhere Else