Before we say a complete goodbye to the campaign, I wanted to make one more “electoral college” comment. I posted this on Facebook just before I decided to start a new blog.
More than one commentator has noticed that Barack Obama has so far drawn few cabinet members and senior staff from the South. His choices may simply be the result of the complex balancing act required by appointments. It also may represent a more noticeable shift away from a region that has dominated presidential politics for more than 60 years.
This year Democrats won the White House for the first time since 1944 (when Roosevelt ran with Truman) without a Southerner on the ticket. Since that election in the middle of World War II, the Democratic party has felt the obligation to offer a Southerner as president or vice-president in every electoral contest, with only one exception (1972). Truman brought in Alban Barkeley of Kentucky in 1948. Stevenson tapped John Sparkman of Alabama in 1952 and then Estes Kefauver of Tennessee in 1956. Kennedy turned to Lyndon Johnson of Texas in 1960. When Kennedy died, Lyndon Johnson became the first Southern president in a century, in bizarre imitation of his long-ago namesake, Andrew Johnson, who had also risen to power after Lincoln’s assassination.
When Lyndon Johnson was re-elected in the landslide of 1964, the South had been reliably Democratic – with the exception of the special circumstance of Reconstruction – for more than 130 years. In 1968, however, the segregationist George Wallace, governor of Alabama, ran as an independent and began to undermine these traditional Democratic ties. That same year, Richard Nixon, who had lost to Kennedy in 1960 when African-Americans deserted the ‘party of Lincoln’ over civil rights, paid them back by initiating the infamous “southern strategy,” an appeal to racial anxieties that eventually lured millions of conservative whites and transformed the former slave states into Republican strongholds.
From then on winning the South gradually came to be seen as the key to the White House, especially for Democrats, especially after the McGovern-Shriver experiment of 1972 went down to a crushing defeat. After that Democrats felt obliged to place a southerner somewhere on the ticket, preferably at the top.
Jimmy Carter won his primaries and the general election with the help of newly engaged southern Christians (few people today remember that TIME magazine declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical” because of this victory). In 1988 Al Gore of Tennesee fell short of the nomination because his Super Tuesday cluster of Southern states fell to a three-way split with Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis; when Dukakis emerged as the nominee he unsuccessfully tried to nail down a general election victory with Texan Lloyd Bentsen. Bill Clinton then doubled up on the Dixie strategy by embracing Al Gore as his running mate in 1992 — and won.
In 2000 Americans had two Southerners running for President – Texas governor George W. Bush challenged Vice President Gore, who was running nationally for the fourth time. Bush skidded unevenly through the campaign using coded language to signal his trustworthiness to conservatives in the south and west while insisting that to everyone else that he was ideologically a uniter and centrist. Both Gore’s popular vote majority and his court-determined electoral college loss offered early signals of the erosion of the South’s singular power at the ballot box. We know that Bush officially won Florida by only 537 votes. We forget that If 3,600 votes had switched sides in New Hampshire, neither the hanging chads of Florida nor the Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote would have mattered.
In 2004 John Kerry attempted the Dixie play again, with John Edwards of North Carolina, but was turned aside by voters in Ohio, a famously split state whose southern counties are often more conservative than parts of its neighbor to the south, Kentucky.
This past November – for only the second time in 64 years – we witnessed what could happen if there were no Southerner anywhere on a national ticket. In 2008 McCain came out the West (Arizona), while his running mate Sarah Palin represented the even more far-flung parts of America – as well as Alaska. With Barack Obama at the top of the ticket anchoring the northern cities and reaching out to the upper Midwest (MI, WI MN, OH), Joe Biden was the closest thing to a Southerner to be found, though Biden spoke of his roots in Pennsylvania at least as often as he mentioned his border state home in Delaware.
Of course, Obama’s victory signified the convergence of many factors and it would certainly be premature to suggest that the South’s role in American politics has permanently been diminished. Yet the raw strangeness of Obama’s accomplishment, when set in its historical context, provides considerable opportunity for reflection.
Obama will not only be the first African-American president, but also the heir to the mid-western tradition of Abraham Lincoln, and the standard bearer of the former political party of the Confederacy, which steadily built up northern support through Cleveland, Wilson, Roosevelt, and Kennedy, all the while retaining its Southern strength. Obama will enter the White House as the first northern Democratic president in nearly 50 years, and will have done so with a two-to-one electoral college victory that included only a handful of Southern states (VA, NC, and FL).
Before we turn to weighing the challenge that our new president faces, we should pause to recall the magnitude of what he has already achieved. Though surmounting the barrier of race is clearly the most astonishing, we would do well to recall some of the geographic obstacles Obama overcame. America has had Republican presidents for 28 of the last 40 years – more than two-thirds of the time. For 12 of those 28 years we were ruled by men from one family, the seemingly unstoppable Bushes, whose Bible belt strength came in part from running for president or vice president six times (every cycle from 1980 to 2004, with the exception of 1996). The only successful avenue open to Democrats – judging from Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton – seemed to be to draw a nominee from the South.
Guided by a truly new political GPS system, Obama took another route. His road trip to the White House was exceptional not only because he took many new people with him, but because along the way he redrew the map.
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