Democrats Might Need to Look South

John J. Pitney Jr. is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of "The Art of Political Warfare" (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000).

Though the 2002 midterm election is barely over, the 2004 presidential campaign has already started.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is getting ready to file a declaration of candidacy. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) informally launched his own campaign with a far-ranging policy speech. Other potential challengers are polishing their sound bites and planning trips to New Hampshire.

But before having their staffs find lyrics to “Hail to the Chief,” would-be candidates should take a deep breath. History suggests that the eventual Democratic nominee will have a tough time ousting the incumbent. Whatever may happen in Iraq, President Bush is already a wartime commander in chief.

Like the Cold War, the war on terror is a protracted conflict combining secret combat with periods of open bloodshed. If the politics of this war follow the same course, then Republicans will have an edge.


During the 11 presidential elections of the Cold War (1948 to 1988), GOP candidates averaged 52.6% of the two-party vote, compared with 47.4% for the Democrats.

Other topics also affected these elections, but the issue of national security usually helped GOP presidential candidates. Voters preferred Republican toughness to Democratic diplomacy.

After the Cold War, the percentages reversed themselves. In the three presidential races between 1992 and 2000, Democrats averaged 52.8% to the Republicans’ 47.2%. The GOP still owned the national security issue, but in the decade of “the economy, stupid,” defense was a political penny stock. The Democrats’ favorite domestic issues were more decisive.

In peacetime, the commander in chief had become the comforter in chief. Peacetime ended on Sept. 11, 2001.


Americans again are focusing on the military issues, where Republicans are strong. President Bush’s high approval ratings suggest that the GOP is regaining the presidential advantage it held before the senior Bush’s 1992 defeat.

Democrats could still win if they run the right kind of candidate. And six decades of election returns indicate that such a candidate would be a Southerner. The last Democratic winner from outside the South was John F. Kennedy in 1960. And like Harry Truman in 1948, JFK failed to win an absolute majority of the total popular vote. The last Northern Democrat to do so was Franklin Roosevelt in 1944.

Why? First, particularly since the 1960s, Republicans have built an electoral stronghold in the South. The Democrats who have had the greatest success at cracking that stronghold -- Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- have all been Southerners.

Second, voters tend to link Northern Democrats with a certain softness on military issues. Think of the silly 1988 photo of Michael Dukakis on a tank in a Snoopy helmet.


So if a Southern pedigree is a condition of success, the current Democratic field narrows down to Edwards and former Vice President Al Gore. This choice should not fill Democrats with optimism. Edwards is a first-term senator with no national security credentials. True, Bush had none before his election, but 2000 was a peacetime race.

That leaves Gore -- and another sobering historical datum. Though he did win a small plurality of the 2000 popular vote, Gore is the only Southern Democrat in the party’s history to lose every state of the old Confederacy. And he has not become more popular in the region.

There is no ironclad guarantee of a Republican victory in 2004. Any number of events could erase the GOP margin: a major scandal, a triple-dip recession or a catastrophic setback in the war on terrorism. But if Republicans escape these problems and the war on terrorism goes well, it is hard to see how they can lose the White House.

Still, many Democrats insist they can beat history by running a Northern progressive who can mobilize their liberal base. That strategy recently worked on TV’s “The West Wing,” in which incumbent President Jed Bartlet triumphed over his Bush-like Republican opponent.


Things are a bit different in the real world, however.