Ah, the South. Sweet tea. NASCAR. Mud. And lots and lots of Republicans. Although Al Gore, a self-proclaimed Southerner, failed to win a single state below the Mason Dixon in 2000, the conventional wisdom in the Kerry camp is to run a truly national campaign and hope for a one- or two-state shift in the South. Yet some within the Donkey Party — myself included — are urging their fellow partisans to forget the South, or risk remaining an opposition party of stupid asses.
It’s not that I have anything against the South per se. It’s just that I think John Kerry should steer clear of it. Strategic thinking in American presidential politics is rarely pretty. Years ago, Bush family goon James Baker famously articulated a pithy piece of political pragmatism that has been a guiding principle of the Republican Party ever since: “[Screw] the Jews; they don’t vote for us anyway.” However crude his phraseology, Baker’s logic made practical sense. It’s time for Democrats to take their cue, get a clue, and recognize that Southerners are to us what Jews, blacks, and all good people are to the Republicans.
It’s a difficult reality to accept. As recently as the 1970s, the “Solid South” still referred to a Democratic electoral bloc. Unfortunately, the political winds have shifted down South. After Lyndon Johnson destroyed Jim Crow, Southerners finally found it in their hearts to forgive Lincoln for ending slavery, and transformed from diehard Democrats to radical Republicans as a result. For whatever else you can say about them, Southerners are not a politically fickle people; like penguins, pigeons and Catholics, when they find one they like, they’re loyal for life.
Despite this, some Democrats in denial still decry the strategic abandonment of the South. During his admirable but ultimately unsuccessful presidential run, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina often pointed out that “no Democrat has ever won the presidency without winning a Southern state.” Of course, Lincoln did, but a Democrat he was not.
So can the Democrats pull a Lincoln and win the White House without the South? Well, if Kerry takes every state Gore won in 2000 (excluding Florida), he would have 260 of the necessary 269 electoral votes. So where will those extra nine votes come from?
Well, West Virginia’s five electoral votes are more or less up for grabs. Six other Southern states — Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Virginia, and North Carolina — are considered remotely winnable for Kerry, but each would likely require a favorite son (or daughter) on the ticket to tip the scales. So is it worth picking a Southern running mate for the sole sake of winning one of these states?
It’s been said that the sine qua non of the running mate is to carry his or her own state. Yet it’s highly possible that many of the leading Southern V-POTUS contenders would fail to satisfy this minimal vice-presidential requirement. Head-to-head Edwards-Bush polls run in North Carolina while Edwards was still in the race showed Bush enjoying a sizeable margin of victory over the Tarheel State Senator who won his Senate seat in 1998 without a majority. Wesley Clark, of course, hasn’t lived in Arkansas for a few decades and has never held elected office from that state (or any other, for that matter). And Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana nearly became the first Democrat to lose her Senate seat to a Republican ever in Louisiana, which, despite that fact, consistently goes Republican in presidential elections.
Luckily, there are opportunities galore in non-Southern Bush states for those elusive nine electoral votes. The closeness of polls in Ohio, Missouri, Indiana and Florida (all Bush wins in 2000) suggest that the marginal benefit of every dollar spent in a host of these states outside the South may greatly exceed that of every dollar spent in it. Kerry is up by four percentage points in a recent poll in Ohio, whose 20 electoral votes make it the “Ground Zero” of the 2004 campaign.
Next-door Indiana offers the prize of 11 electoral votes and is a potential Democratic steal if Senator Evan Bayh, the popular Hoosier State moderate, was added to the ticket.
Eleven electoral votes also come with Missouri, which has a powerful labor vote that could be mobilized with a little help from Dick Gephardt — another guy mentioned for the ticket’s number two.
And don’t forget Florida, which Bush “won” by 500 votes in 2000 (I am not counting Florida as part of “the South”, although it quite clearly is technically “southern”). If we can get some UN election monitors in there to stop Jeb from cheating again, the Sunshine State is up for grabs. Its alluring 27 electoral votes might justify the selection of the goofy but insanely popular Floridian Bob Graham as Kerry’s running mate.
If Kerry could steal just one of these four battleground states, the South becomes a non-factor. So why waste valuable resources — not to mention a vice-presidential pick — on trying to appease an unfriendly region when the election can be won without it?
Of course, no one likes a quitter, so I think it’s important that Kerry at least pretend to care about Southern votes. But this game of make-believe should go no further than, say, embarking on a brief hunting trip in the Bayou, throwing out the first pitch at a Braves’ game, and grubbing on some fried chicken and corn bread in Atlanta. Maybe Kerry could put good ol’ Howard Dean to work down South winning over the famed guys with Confederate flags on their pickups.
We live in a politically polarized country — the 50-50 nation — and we have to be able to delineate friend from foe. Let’s take a page from the Lincoln playbook and skip the South. Though a house divided against itself can still sort of stand, a political party spread too thin simply cannot win.
Zach Jones is a junior in Davenport College. He is the Yale-New Haven coordinator for the John Kerry Campaign.