In the past two national elections, Democrats have made gains at lower levels [in the South], too, winning congressional races in rural areas as well as suburbs. And Barack Obama took Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia -- a state that hadn't gone Democratic since Lyndon Johnson carried it in 1964.
By energizing black voters and minimizing losses among whites, Obama seemed to find a winning formula for getting Democrats back in contention in the South. But this year, the Democratic momentum may be dramatically reversed as white voters in the region seem to be recoiling from the legislation that Congress's Democratic majorities have produced, not to mention from the president himself. [my emphasis]
Does it have anything to do with race?
Democratic and Republican operatives agree that in the South, the main issue in the midterm elections is white animus toward Obama, which has translated into a strong reaction against Democratic congressional candidates. According to a poll conducted between August 25 and September 6 by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, 65 percent of likely white voters in the South say they plan to vote or are leaning toward voting for a Republican candidate in the midterm elections, compared with only 30 percent who said they would favor a Democrat.
That 35 percentage-point gap in the South dwarfs the margins that Republicans hold over Democrats in other regions. Likely white voters in the East favor Republican congressional candidates over Democrats 50 percent to 40 percent; in the Midwest, the GOP's advantage is 52 percent to 40 percent; and in the West, it's 55 percent to 39 percent.
"The thing that differentiates the South from the other regions is the intensity -- the absolute intensity -- of the dislike of Obama," said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who is based in Montgomery, Ala., and conducts surveys on congressional races in and outside of the South. [my emphasis]
It could be just a coincidence that the part of the country which imposed racial segregation for seven decades has a much disproportionate number of whites opposed to the Democrats in general and President Obama in particular. It could also have something to do with the Republicans' decades-long Southern Strategy of appealing to white voters' racial fears and resentments.
More on white voter demography in the South, which could lead someone to wonder whether the categories of "conservative Republican white Christians" might overlap heavily with "white people who really don't like blacks very much":
Republican pollster Whit Ayres explained that voters who identify themselves with the GOP "are just more conservative, and the lurch to the left [in Washington] bothers them more." He noted that in Southern states, at least a plurality of Republicans now identify themselves as "very conservative" as opposed to "somewhat conservative," which wasn't always the case in the 1990s.
Although social issues are generally far from the forefront in this campaign year, cultural roots may be one factor behind the Southern unease with Obama. White voters in the South are far more likely to identify themselves as evangelical Christians than their counterparts in any other part of the country. According to the Pew survey, 46 percent of Southern white voters said they are evangelicals, compared with 27 percent in the Midwest, 22 percent in the West, and just 13 percent in the East. And among white evangelical voters in the South, Obama's job-approval rating stands at an abysmal 21 percent, and his disapproval rating is 75 percent. That's about the same as in 2008, when the National Election Pool exit poll found that only 21 percent of white evangelical Protestants in the South had supported Obama. He hasn't lost evangelicals; their backing for him just still trails abysmally. [my emphasis]
Democrats, not surprisingly, are cautious on this issue, probably too cautious, as they often are:
Democrats explain Obama's liability with white voters in the South as a mix of revulsion toward Democratic activism and even a hint of racial backlash, with an emphasis on the former. "Whether it's the perceived aggressive liberal agenda or the manifestation of race, they clearly place their displeasure right in Obama's lap," said Democratic pollster Anzalone. "You very rarely see unfavorable [ratings] that high."
It's also important to remember that there have been bright spots for the Dems in the South:
During the past few election cycles, Democrats have made gains in picking up House seats in the South. Since 2002, they have won races in 15 congressional districts represented by a Republican and held onto them going into this campaign. Overall, Democrats currently represent 64 of the region's 145 districts. But their net gain since 2002 has been only five seats because they also sustained defeats in 10 districts. Six of those losses came in Texas, thanks to the Republican redistricting plan inspired by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, then the state's most powerful member of Congress, that pushed Democratic incumbents onto shaky terrain.
And as Democratic progressives have been pointing out, Blue Dogs are the most vulnerable, even after the Obama Administration bent over backwards on issues like health care reform to cater to the Blue Dogs:
Many Democratic candidates in the other 40 or so districts are bracing for a GOP surge at the ballot box that won't be met with any countervailing surge in minority-voter support. Democrats suspect that the most likely seats to fall will be those Southern rural and small-town districts, where voters more naturally lean conservative. Even though Democratic incumbents occupying those seats often have conservative stands on the Second Amendment, abortion, and gay marriage, that may not hold much sway with an electorate unhappy with Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress. [my emphasis]
The Louisiana Senate race raises the perennial question of just what kind of values really matter to self-described conservative Christian "values voters":
At one point, Democrats had hopes that Sen. David Vitter, R-La., might be vulnerable after he acknowledged that he had been a client of an escort service in Washington that was a front for prostitution (he sought forgiveness from his wife and his constituents in an emotional public address). His opponent, Rep. Charlie Melancon, a conservative Democrat representing the state's Cajun parishes, has a two-minute television ad reminding Louisianans of the issue and accusations that Vitter had patronized hookers in New Orleans. But even that hasn't inoculated Melancon from GOP attacks that he voted for health care reform, which has a hold on many Louisiana voters this year.
"Their decision is between a whore-loving Republican or an Obama-loving Democrat," said Anzalone, who is Melancon's pollster. "That's what the race is coming down to. That shows you the power of the animosity of white Southerners against what they perceive is going on in Washington, D.C." [my emphasis]
Barnes notes only in passing the potential influence that Latino votes may have in the November elections, which will be one of the most interesting things to watch: "The growing Hispanic population in those states makes Florida Democrat Sink a viable contender and gives former Houston Mayor Bill White a fighting chance in Texas to unseat Republican Gov. Rick Perry, still the favorite."