Can the South become a two-party region?

Throughout most of its history, the South has been a one-party region, dominated by Democrats for nearly a century before party realignment secured control for Republicans. But are we starting to see cracks in that solid control?

This week on the Reckon Interview, we’re exploring the “Southern Strategy” and its impact on national politics. We spoke with Dr. Angie Maxwell, a professor at the University of Arkansas, about her work on “The Long Southern Strategy,” examining the Republican Party transformed itself to court Southern voters in response to the civil rights movement, feminist movement and rise of fundamentalist Christianity. And the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, author of weekly political newsletter, The Trailer, explains how the national parties are spending their resources in the South in 2020.

Here are a few excerpts from the conversation with Dave Weigel to get you started. But you can listen to the whole episode here. You can find our conversation with Dr. Angie Maxwell here

And go ahead and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast or wherever else you get your podcasts to stay informed about the South this election season.  

Dave Weigel on how national parties are approaching the South this cycle

Democrats have been very conservative about their spending, at least at the Joe Biden campaign level. This is a campaign that watched Hillary Clinton tried to expand the map without protecting her flanks in the Midwest, and it’s not repeating that.

So you’ve seen I think, in Alabama, definitely in Texas, a little bit in Georgia, you’ve seen local democrats say they need more. But the electorate that is more friendly to Biden is a combination of people who’ve lived in these states for generations, black voters in all the states we’re talking about, some new arrivals, a lot of new rivals, people who came into the state for work, have college degrees and are not really tied to the Republican party under Trump. And then some, I think you’ve seen people from with kind of a Doug Jones-background, you know, college educated white voters who are very comfortable, let’s say voting for Jeff Sessions six years ago, or voting Republican, pretty much down the ballot, and for whatever reason, and some of that is maybe just a one election, take my vote, and then I’m going to give it back to Republicans frustration with the economy.

When you mentioned the southern strategy you see in a new way, because we’ve seen more than a month now of the Civil Rights protests, not all of them polite, not all of them the type that you might want to make a neat little biopic about or neat little movie. And I think to the surprise of a lot of people in politics, they’ve been fairly popular. Republicans after moving a little bit faster than expected towards saying there are problems in policing. There’s systemic racism. They’ve dialed back a little bit, but independent voters, moderates, white voters with college degrees are on the side of protests, Black Lives Matter, in a way we haven’t seen before.

And that’s, that’s complicated what is famous about the Southern Strategy and how it was really deployed on the south in places like Michigan, Maryland, Wisconsin, which is the old Republican coalition of white voters and from those with higher salaries in the suburbs, Country Club Republicans, to working class voters in manufacturing, they’ve got more of those voters the manufacturer voters than maybe they did eight years ago. They’ve lost a lot of the voters who maybe a generation previous would have been amenable to a “let’s crack down on the unrest” argument.

Dave Weigel on how to watch the rest of campaign season

It’s not just about the president’s approval. I mean, this has been unusually hard as elections go to see what’s happening.

For one: the parties do not have the same grassroots turnout strategy. Democrats have focused much more early on in getting states to make absentee balloting easily available – which is less so in Alabama, there’s still restrictions. Part two: using their GOTV to tell people how to turn them in without screwing them up, which is actually harder than it sounds.

But as a result, we’ve seen Democratic turnout in their primaries stay very high. Republican turnout, I think, was a little bit higher than it got credit for him and more people voted in the Tuberville-Sessions run off than voted in the runoff that got Roy Moore in 2017. So I’m watching that and it’s inconclusive. But I think the Republican idea that Democrats wouldn’t be very excited because they didn’t all rally behind Biden initially, I think that’s not really a concern anymore.

So I look at donations. I look at the primary turnout. We’re kind of done with primaries in September. And then in that case, I think I really start to look at things like the “right and wrong track” number when [polls] ask how the country is going. Whether you have confidence in the president’s handling of COVID. Whether you have confidence in the president’s handling of kind of anything that pops up mean.

So when I talk about “right track, wrong track,” that’s when you ask voters what direction they think the country’s headed in. And the old wisdom was if the president is presiding over an environment where more than half the country thinks we’re on the wrong track, he loses. Barack Obama kind of disproved that in 2012, I should say. George Bush didn’t do that different in 2004. I mean, there’s enough kind of hard partisanship, where you can overwhelm that.

The difference is that we’re down to 18-20% of Americans who think the country is on the right track. That is why there’s so much panic among Republicans is that’s not environment that will tend to reelect an incumbent. And you’ve also seen in terms of the fundraising, one of their trump cards was supposed to be that Donald Trump had a year’s head start and a ton of money and Joe Biden couldn’t catch up. I think we’ll get through the election without Biden, having raised more money in total than Trump, but he’s already been out-raising him and Trump has spent close to $900 million in this campaign through the end of June. And he’s down by 10 points nationwide.

So I think I’m watching the donations to see if that keeps up. And there’s just flagging enthusiasm for Trump. He’s going to have small donors, he’s going to have Republican base. But when I mentioned the polling of how he’s performing on these issues, that’s the difference.

It doesn’t matter if he has an incredibly passionate base of 35-40% of the country. Because he won in 2016 because there were third party options on the ballot that some people frittered away to, because there were questions about Hillary Clinton that a lot of voters found to be as important as the questions about him, and because they didn’t trust Hillary Clinton about the same level, maybe they trusted her 5% more than they trusted Donald Trump. I mean, as an incumbent president, he’s not seen as doing very well in solving the crises of the day, and he’s not seen as honest. Look at national polls – and I think this is different in places like Alabama – it’s in the 30s. It’s low 30 percent of people who say he’s honest. That’s just his base. And that’s not even the entire base. That means there are some people voting for him who don’t think he’s honest. That is a problem. We don’t have a lot of precedent for it. We’ve kind of baked it in because there’s all the fact checkers, and there’s jokes about him making stuff up. But it is a hard place to be if you’re an incumbent, running negative ads, saying “my opponent’s going to do this and that,” “my opponent’s gonna make it so that if you call 911, no one will come,” if people don’t believe you.

And I think if there’s still mass public skepticism about whether he’s doing a good job, and whether the country is going the right direction, and whether he can be trusted. I mean, I think that that would set up the most decisive defeat of a president in quite a while. I mean, literally the first one we’ve had since 1992, but there’s not much of a reservoir of support for him to go back to.

For more about the parties’ strategies for the South, listen to the full conversation here.

Episode One: How America undermined the Voting Rights Act

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