GOP Has Lock on South, and Democrats Can’t Find Key
The generation-long political retreat of Democrats across the South is disintegrating into a rout.
President Bush dominated the South so completely in last month’s presidential election that he carried nearly 85% of all the counties across the region -- and more than 90% of counties where whites are a majority of the population, according to a Times analysis of election results and census data.
The Times’ analysis, which provides the most detailed picture yet of the vote in Southern communities, shows that Bush’s victory was even more comprehensive than his sweep of the region’s 13 states would suggest.
His overwhelming performance left Sen. John F. Kerry clinging to a few scattered islands of support in a region that until the 1960s provided the foundation of the Democratic coalition in presidential politics. Kerry won fewer Southern counties than any Democratic nominee since the Depression except Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and George S. McGovern in 1972, according to data assembled by The Times and Polidata, a firm that specializes in political statistics.
In Southern counties without a substantial number of African American or Latino voters, Bush virtually obliterated Kerry. Across the 11 states of the old Confederacy, plus Kentucky and Oklahoma, whites constitute a majority of the population in 1,154 counties. Kerry won 90 of them.
By contrast, Bill Clinton won 510 white-majority counties in the South eight years ago.
“We are out of business in the South,” said J.W. Brannen, the Democratic Party chairman in Russell County, Ala., the only white-majority county in the state that Kerry carried.
The results underscore the enormity of the challenge facing Democrats as they try to rebuild their Southern support. Most ominously for them, the patterns suggest that under Bush, the GOP is solidifying its hold not just on Southern white conservatives but white moderates as well, a trend also apparent in exit polls of Southern voters on election day.
“As the older white moderates leave the scene, they are being replaced with younger moderates more willing to vote Republican,” said Merle Black, a political scientist at Atlanta’s Emory University and the author of several books on Southern politics.
Compounding the Democratic dilemma is the growing tendency of Southern whites who vote Republican for president to support GOP candidates down the ballot. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won slightly more counties across the South than Bush did this year; but after Reagan’s landslide, Republicans held 12 of the 26 U.S. Senate seats in the region.
After Bush helped the GOP win six open Southern Senate seats last month, Republicans now hold 22 of the 26 Senate seats in the 13 states.
That is the most either party has controlled in the region since Democrats also won 22 in 1964 --ironically, the election in which the white backlash against the Civil Rights Act allowed the GOP to make its first inroads into the South.
Forty years later, under a Southern Republican president, the South has become an electoral fortress for the GOP. Outside the South, Democrats hold more House and Senate seats and won many more electoral college votes than the GOP last month. But the GOP’s advantage in the region has been large enough to overcome those deficits and create Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress and the electoral college.
And the magnitude of November’s Republican sweep last month suggests the GOP advantage across the region is expanding.
“I don’t think that for 50 years we’re going to be a Republican section of the country,” said former Democratic National Committee Co-Chairman Donald L. Fowler of South Carolina. “I really believe we have the potential to turn a lot of this around in a decade. But it will take constructive, directed, consistent work to do it. It’s just not going to happen by itself. We’re in too big a hole.”
Politically, the South includes 13 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Together they cast 168 electoral college votes, more than three-fifths of the 270 required for election.
Many political analysts see Bush’s commanding performance across the region -- and Republican gains in other elections during his presidency -- as the fourth wave in the GOP’s Southern ascendance.
The GOP, which was founded in the 1850s as a Northern party opposed to the expansion of slavery, won very few Southern states in presidential races for a full century after the Civil War. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt won every Southern state in all four of his presidential campaigns.
Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower had some Southern success in the 1950s. But the GOP planted its first lasting roots in the region amid the white backlash against the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts under Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson in the mid-1960s.
Opposition to the new civil rights laws, and to such follow-on initiatives as affirmative action and school busing for racial integration, powered the first wave of GOP gains in the South. But the party expanded its appeal by courting Southern whites with conservative messages on such nonracial issues as taxes, national defense and moral values. That second advance reached a crescendo during Ronald Reagan’s two elections.
“Reagan’s presidency was the turning point in the evolution of a competitive, two-party electorate in the South,” Black and his brother, Earl Black, wrote in their 2002 book, “The Rise of Southern Republicans.”
For the next decade, Democrats remained competitive enough for Southerner Bill Clinton to capture five Southern states in 1992. But the disenchantment over Clinton’s chaotic first two years fueled a third wave of GOP Southern gains. In their midterm landslide of 1994, Republicans for the first time captured the majority of House and Senate seats from the South.
As Clinton pursued a more centrist course after 1994, Democrats stanched their congressional losses in the South and even regained some governorships. In 1996, Clinton again won five Southern states.
But under Bush, the GOP is on the march again.
In the Senate, Republicans have increased the number of seats they hold in the 13 Southern states from 18 before Bush took office to 22. (The GOP has now won the last 10 open-seat Senate races in the South.) In the House, Republicans have stretched their advantage in the Southern states from 27 seats before Bush took office to 40 today.
“This is a cumulative process that has gained critical momentum in the past four years,” said Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political advisor.
Analyzing the results at the county level illustrates Bush’s dominance vividly.
In 2000, Bush won 1,047 counties across the South and held then-Vice President Al Gore to 294, according to Polidata.
This year, Bush won 1,124 counties and held Kerry to 216, according to Polidata figures based on preliminary election results. (The South had one fewer county this year than in 2000 because two jurisdictions merged in Virginia.)
Those numbers represent a catastrophic decline for the Democrats since the 1990s, when Clinton won more than 650 counties in each of his presidential victories. Bush has become the first candidate since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 and 1944 to carry more than 1,000 Southern counties twice.
Even those dramatic numbers may not express the full extent of the Democrats’ erosion.
Kerry carried 126 Southern counties where racial minorities -- primarily African Americans, but also Latinos in Texas -- are a majority of the population, according to a Times analysis of census and Polidata figures. That’s only slightly fewer than the 142 “majority-minority” counties Clinton won across the South in 1996.
But Kerry won fewer than one-fifth as many majority-white Southern counties as Clinton did. In all, Kerry carried fewer than 8% of Southern counties with a white majority. Kerry won only one majority-white county in each of Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi; in Texas he carried two of 196.
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster specializing in the South, said a combination of long-term trends and more immediate factors combined to produce Bush’s advantage.
“It’s the historic conservatism of the South reinforced by a contest between a Southern Republican conservative and a Northeastern liberal Democrat at a time when the debate was dominated by national security, where the South has historically been very pro-military, with a kicker of cultural values --specifically, gay marriage -- where the South has long been the most culturally conservative region of the country,” Ayres said. “You put all those factors together, and it’s a formula for a Democratic wipeout.”
Also contributing to the debacle was Kerry’s decision to essentially write off the region, except Florida, after Labor Day. Although he bought television advertising early on in Louisiana, Arkansas, Virginia and North Carolina, and picked Sen. John Edwards from that state as his running mate, Kerry pulled his ad buys from all of them by early September.
Few Democrats believe the party can -- or needs to -- be competitive at the presidential level anytime soon in Deep South states such as South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, or Texas and Oklahoma in the Southwest.
But many believe that a key lesson of 2004 is that the Democrats need a candidate who can seriously contest at least some Southern states, starting with Virginia, North Carolina and Arkansas, and perhaps Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia. Democrats also will find it difficult to regain control of the House and especially the Senate if they cannot reduce the Republican advantage in the South.
“The one incontrovertible thing we learned is we are going to have to be competitive in more parts of the country,” said Ed Kilgore, policy director of the Democratic Leadership Council, the party’s leading centrist group.
Democratic support has collapsed in most of those states to the point that the party has only a meager foundation to build on.
The white-majority counties that Kerry held fall into a few distinctive categories. He won some poor, rural counties, particularly in outer Southern states such as Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky. Kerry won some of the few Southern counties with a significant trade union presence, like Jefferson County, Ky., which includes Louisville, and Jefferson County, Texas, around Port Arthur and Beaumont.
Kerry also performed well in college towns, capturing the counties that house the principal state university in Florida, Georgia, Virginia, Texas and North Carolina. And he won the parts of the South most like the North: the southeastern Florida retirement havens of Broward and Palm Beach counties and the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington.
Kerry also showed strength in some relatively affluent majority-white communities with large numbers of public employees and college-educated professionals. These are places such as Mecklenburg County, around Charlotte, N.C., where Kerry won a higher proportion of the vote than any Democrat since FDR in 1944; Fairfax County, Va., which voted Democratic for the first time since 1964; Davidson, Tenn., around Nashville; and Leon County, Fla., around the state capital, Tallahassee.
Those wins, among voters who resemble the affluent and socially moderate suburbanites of the Northeast and Midwest, could offer a path for the party to compete in states such as Virginia and North Carolina.
But mostly the results underscored Kerry’s inability to crack the middle-class Southern suburbs, or indeed, virtually any component of the Southern white population.
Bush romped in suburban and exurban areas, from Shelby County, Ala., to Gwinnett and Cobb counties in Georgia. He captured several of the large urban areas, like Birmingham, Ala., and Tampa, Fla., that Kerry typically won outside the South, and virtually swept the table in rural and small-town communities apart from the few Democratic holdouts in the outer South.
The breadth of Bush’s success in majority-white counties spotlighted his ability to reach beyond his conservative base.
According to the election day exit polls, Kerry won white moderates only in Tennessee and Florida, and he tied Bush among them in Arkansas. In every other Southern state, Bush not only beat Kerry among white moderates but held him to 44% or less with that group. Kerry won white liberals in each state, but they represented no more than about one-sixth, and sometimes as little as one-ninth, of the white population.
Even many Democrats say the Republican surge among white moderates will force the party back to the drawing board. During the late 1990s, Democrats led by Clinton thought they had constructed a new formula for Southern success by linking African Americans and moderate white suburbanites through messages that muted social issues while emphasizing economic development and improving public education.
“But with the growth of the exurbs, the polarization of the parties and the decline in ticket-splitting, Republicans appear to have put together an overwhelming majority in the South again,” Kilgore said. “They are now carrying the suburban vote and totally dominating the rural areas. The question: Can Democrats come up with a new biracial coalition?”
For the near term, at least, Rove remains confident that the answer is no. “If you accept my underlying assumption that this is the result of a trend that has gained momentum over the years and has been reinforced under President Bush, what is the act that is going to stop it and reverse it?” he asked.
“Once these things get set in motion, they require something on the landscape done by one or both parties, or events to intrude, to stop it and reverse it.”
Times staff writer Richard Rainey and associate Times Poll director Jill Darling Richardson contributed to this report.