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Democrats Can Win the South Again. Here's a Simple Strategy for Hillary 2016.


“I feel like I’ve had the South yankeesplained to me,” former North Carolina Congressman Brad Miller wrote on Facebook in reaction to Michael Tomasky’s argument in The Daily Beast, after Senator Mary Landrieu lost in the Louisiana runoff, that "the Democratic Party shouldn’t bother trying" to win southern voters.

Tomasky's argument wasn't an outlier. Ed Kilgore at Talking Points Memo declared the Blue Dog model dead, the southern populist tradition outdated, and said there was nothing the party could have done differently to win in a state like North Carolina. New York magazine's Jonathan Chait saw Landrieu’s defeat as the culmination of a long overdue political realignment; not only did Democrats deserve to lose Dixie, they should have years ago.

But John Cassidy of The New Yorker got it right. “If the Democratic Party wants to be a national party of government,” Cassidy wrote, “it needs to retain and expand its presence in the South, rather than neglecting it. And if it’s serious about offering hope and encouragement to Americans of all classes and ethnic groups, it can’t seriously consider giving up on what is still the most deprived region of the country. Even if the Democrats don’t need the South—and I think they do—the South needs the Democratic Party.”

From a strategic standpoint it makes sense to steer field organizers to Ohio or Colorado. But abandonment only works if the purpose of politics is to win, and win alone. If the reason why good people get involved is to help those suffering around them, it would be criminal to give up on the South, or border states like Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia.

Speaking as a southerner, we need help, not from the DCCC but from government to deal with issues like homelessness and drug addiction. The worst poverty in the United States is in Mississippi, Arizona, New Mexico, Alabama, Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arkansas, South Carolina and Louisiana. But no Democratic coalition can make a difference here through policy without the support of southern voters, and the visual reassurance of southern politicians.

Democrats can win in Virginia and North Carolina, and at least be competitive in Georgia, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, and West Virginia. The problem is turnout. November’s election saw the worst turnout since 1942, when millions of Americans were overseas fighting in the Second World War.

This is especially true in West Virginia, the state that has shifted most dramatically away from Democrats. Turnout was 77 percent in West Virginia when John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in 1960; the state voted Democratic. In 1988, turnout was 67 percent and West Virginia voted for Michael Dukakis. But in 2012, state turnout was the worst in the country and West Virginia went for Mitt Romney. But Democrats in West Virginia didn’t become Republicans. They stopped voting.

That's why regaining viability in the south and Heartland won’t happen by trying to convince white conservatives to come back from the GOP. The answer is nonvoters.

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, a third of nonvoters are younger than 30, while just 10 percent of likely voters are under 30. Forty-three percent are either Hispanic, African American, or another racial or ethnic minority, double their representation among likely voters. Nonvoters are poorer and less educated than the electorate: 46 percent earn family incomes less than $30,000, and 33 percent receive government benefits compared to 18 percent of actual voters. More importantly, 51 percent of nonvoters identify as Democrats, or lean that way, while only 30 percent prefer the GOP. With likely voters the divide is 50-44.

The typical nonvoter, then, is poor and favors Democrats. So why aren’t they showing up?

According to the new book Who Votes Now? Demographics, Issues, Inequality, and Turnout in the United States by Jan E. Leighley and Jonathan Nagler, there is a key difference between political independents, who do vote, and the nonvoters who opt not to participate.

Independents are socially liberal and fiscally conservative, while nonvoters tend to be fiscally liberal but socially conservative. That describes neither Democrats nor the GOP. Nonvoters know Republicans don’t care about them, but Democrats abandoned economic populism in favor of culture-war liberalism.

While nonvoters are skeptical of immigration and gay rights, social issues don’t fire them up, otherwise they’d be voting Republican. That’s why Democrats don’t have to move right on God, guns, or abortion. They need to speak to issues that nonvoters care about.

In Appalachia, the biggest threat to health and safety isn’t gun violence, climate change, or a War on Women; it’s prescription drugs. West Virginia has the highest drug overdose rate in America. More people die overdosing on OxyContin, Vicodin, or Xanax in West Virginia than die in car accidents.

But Democrats don’t talk about prescription drug abuse, America’s meth and heroin epidemics, or the scourge of homelessness and hunger in the United States—issues poor people struggle with every day.

Somewhere along the way, the party of Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Robert F. Kennedy became a defender of the banks and the pharmaceutical companies, comfortable among the rich, and ashamed of the working class. And that’s when Democrats lost the South.  

Even in the GOP wave of 2014, North Carolina was winnable. Senator Kay Hagan lost by 45,000 votes in a state with roughly a million poor people eligible to vote. North Carolina’s most populous county, Mecklenburg, has the worst income mobility in the United States. Hagan didn’t use the word poverty on her website or in a campaign commercial. Turnout there was 39 percent.

The Democratic Party's coalition is stronger and better prepared for America's future demographic thanks to their stance on civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights. But Democrats should be both an inclusive and a Jacksonian party willing to fight for the little guy. As Kevin Barker aptly put it in The New York Times, “Why try to cast yourselves as economic moderates and cultural progressives when the disparate elements of your coalition have little in common culturally, but are all struggling with the same wretched economy?"

Over at Salon, Michael Lind figures the New Politics neoliberal party of George McGovern, Gary Hart and Barack Obama is “running on fumes.” 2016 will determine which direction Democrats go, and one likely candidate, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, understands that southern populism isn’t dead—we’re just waiting to see if northern progressives have any fight left in them. There’s a reason why Senator Elizabeth Warren was invited down from Massachusetts to campaign in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Georgia. She knows whose side Democrats are supposed to be on. The question is, does Hillary?