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The Sustainability of the Obama Coalition

Posted by politicizer on June 8, 2009

Tyler Bilbo, Staff Writer

As soon as Lyndon Johnson put down his pen after he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he turned to an aide and said “We have lost the South for a generation.” Despite President Johnson’s accurate forecast, remnants of the Democratic Party’s longtime marriage to the South remain. Just last week, a Democrat won a low turnout special election to fill an Alabama state senate seat in a district that overwhelmingly voted for John McCain and Sarah Palin. The difference between Democratic performance at the national and state level is nothing new in the South. This discrepancy, however, is larger than it has ever been and is even beginning to effect down-ballot Democrats in predominantly White districts.

Before Obama’s historic election in November, only two Democrats have occupied the White House since Lyndon Johnson ceded the “Solid South” to the Republicans. Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, however, won with the support of culturally conservative white voters in states like Tennessee and Louisiana. While Clinton won 46 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes in 1992, Obama only carried 10.

Located deep in the heart of Bayou country, Lafourche Parish is a microcosm of the South’s latest chapter in its divorce from the Democratic Party. With a White population of over 80%, Lafourche Parish abounds with the type of culturally conservative Democrat that swept Bill Clinton into office. While Bill Clinton won the Parish, Barack Obama registered a dismal 26% of the vote.

Counties and Parishes like Lafourche exist across the South. Each of these counties are largely rural and have some of the regions lowest percentages of African American voters. Furthermore, this realignment of rural White voters permeated surrounding states. Despite losing the election, John Kerry performed better than Barack Obama in states like Kentucky, West Virginia and Oklahoma

The unprecedented irrelevance of rural Southern Whites in a Presidential Democratic victory has the potential to permanently transform Presidential elections. Just four years ago, after George W. Bush was re-elected in spite of an unenviable approval ratings, the Democratic Party was in crisis mode. Books like What’s the Matter with Kansas and Foxes in the Henhouse explored the party’s inability to reach the Southern White Democrat. The national party looked like it was at least tempted with a return to William Jennings Bryan styled populism that would more effectively sell in the White rural South. But then came Barack Obama.

Obama’s victory revealed that a Democratic candidate can be viable at the national level without garnering support of the conservative White rural voter. Unlike Clinton’s coalition of supporters in 1992 and 1996, Obama forged a decidedly more liberal voting bloc of African-Americans and relatively well educated urban and suburban Whites. Despite Obama’s overall weakness in the South, traditionally Republican states like Virginia and North Carolina turned blue. Why did these states buck the regional trend? Because unlike states like Louisiana and Arkansas, each state boasts a large enough pocket of urban and suburban Whites to complement the African American vote.

If Obama’s victory is a harbinger of a transformed Presidential map, the anti-Obama White Southern Democrat could become irrelevant. While the Democratic Party cannot afford to ignore voters outside of the Obama coalition, much of its success at the Presidential level depends on the new base’s level of enthusiasm. The inversely proportional relationship between African-American voter preferences and those of conservative Southern whites, however, presents a challenge to the faction of Democratic strategists who still assert the value of constituencies like Lafourche Parish. As long as future nominees can keep African American turnout high in conjunction while maintaining enthusiastic support from liberal Whites, the Obama coalition just might dominate Presidential politics for Presidential elections to come.


2 Responses to “The Sustainability of the Obama Coalition”

  1. legalboxerbriefs said

    I think it’s very tempting to view this election in terms of race politics — and, undoubtedly, race did play a large role in how the election played out. But I’m unwilling to say that race was the only factor.

    If you look back at the people who have won the presidency in the past century — with some exceptions in extraordinary circumstances — there are a couple of patterns which emerge.

    First, an important factor is charisma and a knack for public speaking; or at least having an opponent who has no charisma whatsoever. This explains the rapid rise to prominence of politicians as Wilson, Hoover, FDR, JFK and Bobby Kennedy, Clinton, and Reagan, and the list goes on. Sometimes, politicians such as Carter or Johnson will be popular as the result of a failed past president or an honored and fallen predecessor. Eisenhower was popular because of his military hero status. Democratic candidates such as Al Gore, John Kerry, and Michael Dukakis lacked any charisma whatsoever — so it’s not that surprising that they lost.

    Second, there is how the candidate’s campaign was run. A cognitive psychologist (I can’t recall the name) wrote in his book, The Political Brain (which I highly recommend), Democratic candidates (specifically Kerry, Gore, and Dukakis, but I’m sure others have been guilty as well) have tended to make purely logical appeals and arguments to voters. Yet what has been proven to be more successful — and what the Republican Party has long used — have been emotional appeals. A frequently-cited example of this was Dukakis’ response to the death penalty question:

  2. I find that thesis interesting and a quick observation of successful Democratic tickets lends it some credibility. I’d like to see the substantiated causal evidence that this cognitive psychologist collected.

    Regardless of this notion, it does not really apply to my analysis of state-by-state voting trends. Yes, on the macro level of the entire American electorate, this notion of emotional appeals probably has plenty of explanatory value. At the level of an individual state’s electorate, however, a factor like ‘Obama’s race’ corresponds much more directly with voter preferences and the subsequent outcome than it does at the national level. I hope I’m making sense?

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