Cat Scratch Fever

It was moments before my panel with political consultant Dave "Mudcat" Saunders on the significance of the South to the Democratic Party at the Yearly Kos convention last week in Las Vegas. Another political consultant, Joe Trippi -- who was added to the panel at the last minute by the moderator, MyDD blogger Jerome Armstrong, himself now also a political consultant -- leaned over to Saunders and said, "Do we even have to have this panel? Can't we just say, 'Mudcat is right,' and get out of here?"

Thus my amusement, following the panel, when a disgruntled audience member came forward to insult me -- the guy living on a state university professor's salary -- as "just another slick consultant." I presume the heckler was among those who hollered when Saunders opened his remarks by saying I could "kiss [his] rebel ass" for even suggesting that Democrats need to build a non-southern majority as their best and fastest route back to national power. How ironic that the attendee's reflexive response to my unsettling analysis was that it could only be the byproduct of a consultant's muddleheaded self-interest, when I happened to be the lone panelist that morning who doesn't earn his living advising political parties or candidates.

What's neither amusing nor ironic, but rather sad, is the state of political advice when it comes to the Democrats' problems in the South. Saunders' consultancy career, after all, depends on solving the following riddle: How is it that working-class whites -- especially those in the rural parts of the South who sit side by side with similarly situated working-class southern blacks at high school sporting events on Friday nights, shop at the same businesses on Saturday afternoon, attend similar (if different denominational) Christian churches on Sunday morning, and send their kids to the same public schools the following Monday -- troop to the ballot box on the first Tuesday every other November vote and pull the lever for the Republicans while their black neighbors are voting overwhelmingly Democratic? The answer is complex but, of course, is rooted in race.

When I asked Saunders if he could think of any other two sets of Americans who are otherwise so similarly situated yet vote so differently, he had no answer. Probed for a solution to this stultifying racial bifurcation, he mumbled something about how every white southern guy has at least "one black friend." The soporific Trippi -- himself freshly demoted by former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, whose U.S. Senate campaign in Maryland had been listing badly in 2005 before Trippi was replaced by a new team -- had little to add. Apparently, this is what now passes for serious analysis about southern politics from high-priced political consultants, which is why I flew home feeling a strange sympathy for the man who heckled me, even if he was screaming at the wrong panelist.

For Democrats, racialized voting in the South is frustratingly punitive. Depending on the cycle and the office, southern whites vote between 60 and 80 percent Republican, while blacks vote anywhere between 75 percent and 95 percent Democratic. Hold aside Florida and Louisiana, and in general the blacker the southern state, the wider George W. Bush's margins were during the past two presidential elections.

Consider Mississippi, the state with the highest share of African Americans. According to exit polls, 90 percent of black Mississippians voted for John Kerry in 2004, and they were 34 percent of the statewide electorate. The Census Bureau estimates blacks were 37 percent of all 2004 voters in the state, but whether the 90 percent performance is multiplied by the lower or higher estimate, Democrats effectively started the 50-yard dash to a statewide electoral majority at somewhere between the 25-yard line and the 30-yard line, yet still finished second -- by a wide margin, no less. Meanwhile, the top three statewide elected officials in Mississippi are Governor Haley Barbour and Senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, none of whom might be described as liberal Republicans. Today's white southerners, particularly in the Deep South, vote Republican with a vengeance.

Consultants like Saunders are paid to figure out how to persuade just the small fraction of white voters needed to win in places like the Magnolia State. It's not an easy task, to be sure. Along with Steve Jarding, his more measured co-author of Foxes in the Henhouse: How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland and What the Democrats Must Do to Run 'em Out, Saunders calls for a "bubba-plus-blacks" Democratic coalition. If only wishing made it so. Though they write powerfully about southern Republicans' political exploitation of race and the appalling inequities rural Americans face, Jarding and Saunders provide few solutions beyond semiotic gimmicks like putting candidates in flannel shirts, or symbolic gestures like Bob Graham's sponsorship of a NASCAR driver.

If these self-styled southern political experts can't solve the problem of building a sustainable cross-racial Democratic coalition in the South, there are only two conclusions to draw: The consultants are not worth the price of their contracts, or the Democrats' problems in the region are so intractable they simply cannot be solved. Either admission would put guys like Saunders out of business.

Indeed, Saunders' very livelihood requires him to peddle fictions like the notion that rural, white, Christian, noncollege-educated, married male voters are the key to Democratic resurgence in a country where women, suburban-exurbanites, seculars, college graduates, the unmarried, and minorities become a larger share of the electorate with each passing cycle. Democrat Mark Warner's victory in the 2001 Virginia governor's race is most often cited as evidence of the rural strategy's effectiveness, but a closer look reveals a different story.

I compared results from the 1997 defeat of Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Don Beyer, first with those of Warner's victory from 2001 and then the victory of Warner's lieutenant governor, Tim Kaine, in 2005. Warner improved in the Northern Neck/Eastern Shore, Western, Shenandoah, Southwest, and Southside regions of Virginia; in percentage terms, his increases in these more rural regions was even slightly higher than it was in Tidewater, Richmond, the Charlottesville-based Piedmont and Northern Virginia. (Counties and independent cities were categorized using regions provided by Virginia political expert Larry Sabato.)

The problem is that there are too few voters in these rural counties to win, something Jarding and Saunders -- who use their book to repeatedly chastise Democrats who can't count -- avoid mentioning. Overall, Warner got 245,206 more votes than Beyer did, of which 158,133 votes (or 64 percent) came from the latter four regions, which together form the urban-suburban core of Virginia.

Further invalidation of the rural strategy arrived four years later with Kaine's victory. Kaine talked openly about his faith, but he did not sell himself nearly as aggressively as Warner did to "values" voters in the rural, western parts of Virginia. And on election night, Kaine paid for that strategic decision: Even though total statewide turnout was higher in 2005 than 2001, Kaine drew fewer votes in the Western (3,288 fewer votes), Shenandoah (1,145 fewer), Southwest (13,096 fewer votes), and Southside (13,364 fewer) regions than did Warner; only in the Northern Neck/Eastern Shore did he ever-so-slightly (1,084 more votes) eclipse his predecessor's benchmark. Yet not only did Kaine win, but in both absolute and percentage terms he beat Republican Jerry Kilgore by wider margins than Warner beat Mark Earley in 2001. That is, despite doing worse among rural Virginians, Kaine did better overall.

Given his rural drop-off, how did Kaine do it? Obviously, he crushed Kilgore in urban and suburban Virginia. Again using 1997 defeat as the baseline, Kaine garnered 286,971 more votes than Beyer, with an eye-popping 80 percent of those added votes coming from the Tidewater, Richmond, Piedmont and Northern Virginia regions. Kilgore's strident, late-campaign death penalty advocacy drove Kaine's numbers down in rural Virginia, but Kaine won by larger margins in the parts of the state that mattered most -- that is, the growing areas filled with swing voters. The truth is that the Old Dominion is getting bluer not because of "NASCAR voters" in small, rural southwestern places like Montgomery County, Virginia, but because the urban-suburban counties in the northeastern part of the state -- especially the vote-rich, expanding Washington suburbs of Northern Virginia -- are looking more and more like the soccer mom-filled suburbs of Montgomery County, Maryland.

Listen carefully to Warner, and the 2008 presidential hopeful concedes this essential truth. Last December, about a month after Kaine's victory, I caught Warner's basic stump speech in front of a far-from-liberal audience: a gathering of South Carolina Democrats at the Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston. Warner talked about the expansion of rural broadband, and then told the story of how his administration helped bring 300 software design jobs, with an average salary of $51,000, to the tiny coal town of Lebanon, tucked away in state's southwestern Appalachian corner. "What happened that day in that community was more than economic development," waxed Warner. "They had every one of the high schools in the county there that day, and the hope in that room and the possibility that those kids will have a job in their own hometown is something I'll carry with me forever."

This is the Fairfax-ification of rural Virginia, not the rural-ification of Northern Virginia. And it is this model writ large -- winning outside the rural areas and then taking a record of smart, progressive policies to rural voters for their inspection -- which ratifies the strategy of Democrats first building a non-southern majority, governing confidently and successfully, and then appealing to the South, the nation's most rural, poor, and conservative region. This approach is essentially how Bill Clinton, the first Democratic president since the Civil War to win a higher share of the vote outside the South than inside, won and governed.

But Saunders, willfully or not, ignores any evidence that contradicts his central claim to political expertise or the purported value of his vaunted rural strategy. Although he acts like a saber-toothed tiger if somebody dares to shake his food dish, when asked for sober analysis or thoughtful solutions he quickly morphs into a mewing, bedraggled mud kitten. By panel's end, Saunders still hadn't provided much of a solution for the southern Democrats' race-based polarity problem beyond his absurdist "one-black-friend" theory of biracial coalition-building. That cat is all screech and no scratch.

Thomas F. Schaller is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of the forthcoming book Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South (Simon & Schuster, October 2006).

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