With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The Democrats Can Win without a Southerner at the Top of the Ticket

Although media and public attention has focused on retired General Wesley Clark's military credentials and his dramatic late entry into the presidential race, in one key respect his candidacy as a Southerner represents something familiar in Democratic presidential politics. In the past three decades, the Democrats have nominated Southerners for president five of seven times. What's more significant, they've won only with Southerners.

Democrats' preference for Southern nominees in recent years represents a Democratic attempt to counter the Republicans' successful effort to shift the former Confederate states from solidly Democratic to a preference for Republicans in presidential elections.

The Democrats' dilemma began in the midst of Lyndon Johnson's landslide 1964 election when they watched Republican Barry Goldwater, an opponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, take five Southern states. Richard Nixon built on Goldwater's breakthrough when, as candidate and president (1968-1974), he inaugurated the Republicans' Southern strategy. Nixon won votes among whites opposed to or unsure about racial integration by opposing busing for desegregation and new civil rights advances. He also appealed to Southern regional pride, attacking the Democrats for anti-Southern bias when they rejected his nominations to the Supreme Court of Southern strict constructionists opposed by civil rights and labor groups.

Although Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment, the Republicans in most places in the South, and to an increasing degree in the rest of the country, embraced his approach to race. The GOP became a party opposed to African Americans and other minorities. Long the preferred party of business and the party of the comfortably well-off, the Republicans anchored themselves with their Southern strategy with a new mass base among a significant segment of low and middle income whites. The Democratic dominance of American politics established in the era of Franklin Roosevelt (1932-1945) came to an end.

Seeking to compete in presidential politics, Democrats nominated and won with Georgian Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Arkansan Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Carter in his first race and Clinton in his election and reelection succeeded in winning some Southern states. Both were moderates who appealed to regional feeling and residual party loyalty among moderate-to-conservative white Southerners. With the important exception of Clinton's 1992 campaign's rudeness to Jessie Jackson, both Carter and Clinton attempted with some success to pull white Southern opinion away from the racial and sectional divisiveness of the Republicans.
As helpful as Carter's and Clinton's victories were to promoting racial harmony in the South and in the nation as a whole, their victories in the long run proved costly to the Democrats. Neither presidency was successful. Both left office with fewer Democrats in Congress than when they entered it. Both left office with polls showing less public support for Democrats when they arrived in office.

Carter faced difficult challenges during his one-term presidency (1977-1981). Effectively managing the late 1970s economy and the Iran hostage crisis would have been difficult tasks for any president. When Carter shifted spending from social needs to the military, sponsored deregulation, and broke his promise to seek national health insurance, however, he angered core Democratic constituencies. His inability to win labor law reform disappointed his union allies. When Carter withdrew the SALT treaty from the Senate, canceled American participation in the Moscow Olympics, and renewed registration for the draft, he disheartened the peace movement. Carter's shift to center-right policies prepared the ground for Ronald Reagan's election as president in 1980 and six years of Republican control of the U.S. Senate.

Clinton's successful management of an economic boom during his two terms as president and his ability to isolate Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich were important accomplishments. However, Clinton's initial failure to deliver on his 1992 promises of job creation, rebuilding the country's infrastructure, and enacting universal health care coupled with the passage of NAFTA and inaction on the workplace fairness bill led to Republicans gaining control of the Congress in the 1994 election. Although Clinton won reelection, his support for the Republicans' welfare reform bill and their approach to balancing the budget broke with the party's social reform tradition, weakened its ties to its principal constituencies, and undermined a return to a Democratic majority in Congress.

The preference of Southern voters for Republicans in presidential politics may seem to trap the Democrats into countering the GOP's Southern strategy with one of their own. But the South and the North have become more alike since the 1980s. It's honorable and decent to elect a moderate who really believes in and will contribute to promoting racial harmony and racial equality but it isn't enough. Voters are looking for a president and a congress that will put the country on the path of peace and social progress.

Al Gore, another moderate Southern Democrat running for president, hinted in his 2000 election campaign at an alternative strategy that could be effective for the Democrats nationwide.

In part influenced by the challenge of Green party candidate Ralph Nader, Gore successfully emphasized liberal and populist themes to appeal to core Democratic constituencies, winning more votes from those groups than had Clinton in 1996 as well as a popular vote plurality.* However, Gore also embraced Republican themes and agreed with Bush on many issues. Given the center-right record of both Gore and the Clinton administration, moreover, Gore was less successful in energizing support among low income voters, a traditional area of Democratic strength.

A trustworthy Democratic presidential candidate who pursues a consistent left-of-center course could galvanize a grass roots campaign in the women's, environmental, peace, civil rights, and labor movements. Such a campaign could bring many low income non-voters and youth into the political process. The Democrats can win the White House and a Congressional majority with a coalition of new voters, Greens, and the Democratic party's core constituencies.

The Democrats' strategy of nominating moderate Southerners brought some victories but not long-term progress for the party or the country. Rather than focusing on turning again to a moderate Southern nominee in hopes of preventing a Southern sweep by George W. Bush, the Democrats should instead focus on developing a strategy for effective governance. They need to explain how they will promote peace and security, provide jobs, and achieve new social reforms such as national health care. Putting forward a feasible plan would energize and expand the Democratic party's social base everywhere, including the South.

A progressive strategy would focus the nation's attention on repairing our frayed social contract. Democrats and all Americans ought to remember the words of Franklin Roosevelt: "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

* Gore received a higher proportion of the vote in 2000 than Clinton had in such core Democratic constituencies as Democrats (86% compared with 84%), African Americans (90% compared with 84%), liberals (80% compared with 78%), working women (58% compared with 56%) and Jews (79% compared with 78%). Those supportive Union members gave Gore the same level of support as they had Clinton (59%) but turned out in much larger numbers than in 1996, contributing 15.3% to Gore's total vote compared with 13.6% to Clinton's. For details click here.