Friday, December 9, 2011

Georgia On My Mind

I have this friend who lives in Atlanta. I would describe him as a devoted supporter of Barack Obama.

He says he has been disappointed and frustrated with Obama at times, but it often seems to me that he finds ways to justify or excuse those policies that he says have been disappointing and frustrating. This also leads, at times, to overly optimistic electoral expectations.

At one time, we were living parallel lives. We were pursuing our master's degrees in journalism at the University of North Texas, we were working full time at the same newspaper, and we were working part time as graduate assistants in UNT's editing lab.

Frequently, we were enrolled in the same classes. I used to tease him that I saw more of him than his wife or children did.

We got to know each other pretty well, and we found that we had a lot in common. We both considered ourselves Democrats, and we shared much the same world view.

Anyway, that friend and I went our separate ways eventually. He got his degree, and I got mine. He went on to get his doctorate at another school. I got a job teaching journalism. We had our different life experiences, as friends do.

To an extent, we've moved in different directions. He still considers himself a Democrat; I consider myself an independent. I guess his philosophy hasn't changed much; perhaps mine has, although I don't think of it that way.

But even if it is true, I don't look at it as a bad thing — more like what Joni Mitchell described in "Both Sides Now."
"But now old friends are acting strange,
They shake their heads,
They say I've changed.
Something's lost
But something's gained
In living every day."

Life has taken my friend to Atlanta, as I say — where, I presumed, he would obtain unique insights into the voting behavior of people in Georgia.

Maybe he has, but I'm inclined to think they are colored by his personal political perceptions, not necessarily by reality.

In 2008, he told me that Obama would win Georgia for two reasons — the black population of Georgia (roughly 30% of the total) would vote heavily for him (which it did, I suppose) and the presence of Libertarian — and Georgia native — Bob Barr on the ballot.

Barr, he said, would siphon off enough votes from John McCain to hand the state to the Democrats. He didn't.

More than 3.9 million people voted in Georgia in November 2008. About 28,000 of them voted for Barr.

That didn't really surprise me. Georgia has never struck me as being unusually susceptible to quixotic third–party candidacies.

When such a third–party candidate has caught fire elsewhere, in the region or the country at large — i.e., Ross Perot in '92 or George Wallace in '68 — Georgia has jumped right in there.

But, otherwise, third–party candidates have been non–factors in Georgia. Maybe the concept of a two–party system is too deeply ingrained in Georgians.

As someone who has lived in the South all his life, that sort of seems to me to be true of the South in general, and the percentages from the last election in which a third–party candidate played a prominent role — 1992 — support that.

According to "The Almanac of American Politics 1994," states in the South Atlantic region of the country (Florida, Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas) gave a much smaller share of their vote to Perot (16%) than almost any other region. The states in the Mississippi Valley — Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee — gave the smallest (11%).

In other words, even in a year in which the third–party candidate was bringing millions of previously politically inactive voters into the process, the South resisted the temptation to abandon the two–party arrangement.

The authors of the 1994 "Almanac," Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa, used the numbers from the 1992 election to make the case for their observation of the "phenomenon" of straight–ticket voting that year. And I suppose it was a compelling argument for those who sought to explain what had happened that year.

Their analysis always struck me as being somewhat short–sighted, focused as it was on a single election.

See, I never really bought the idea that it was an isolated phenomenon. I have long believed that straight–ticket voting is a reality of American politics, particularly Southern politics. It was true in 1992. I believe it will be true in 2012 — and that the numbers from 2010 and recent presidential elections clearly suggest that the Democrats will lose every Southern state next year.

I know it was always a reality in Arkansas — but that was due, in large part, to the fact that there was really only one political party in Arkansas when I was growing up. The Democrats had a near monopoly on political power in Arkansas — and most of the South — in those days.

But that was really a different Democratic Party. As I have noted before, the politicians who led the Democratic Party in those days probably had much more in common philosophically with today's Republicans.

Eventually, in fact, many of them switched their party affiliations, but it took some time. The Southern Democrats of a generation or two back were trained at their mother's knees to be wary of Republicans.

Republicans were damn yankees, and the transition was a long time coming and really achieved incrementally. Southerners were voting for Republicans for president long before they started voting for Republicans for state and local offices.

The GOP, they were told, had inflicted Reconstruction on the South after the Civil War — and had been responsible for the poverty and misery that afflicted most who lived there, white and black, ever since. It was an article of faith, and so, with the exceptions of a few isolated pockets, most places in the South were run by Democrats for decades.

Many people mistakenly believe the South began moving away from the Democrats to the Republicans in 1980, when Reagan conservatives joined forces with Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, but, in hindsight, that was really more symbolic of the completion of the shift than its beginning. It was in 1980 that the Moral Majority served as the bridge for the last holdouts, the Christian evangelicals, who seemed, prior to that time, to exist outside politics — at least as an interest group or voting bloc.

The real breaking point came in the 1960s, in the midst of the civil rights conflict, campus unrest and general social upheaval. Even Lyndon Johnson, the architect of the Great Society, acknowledged that his greatest legislative triumphs, the ones that guaranteed voting rights and civil rights to all Americans, likely had handed the South to the opposition for a generation or more.

His words have truly been prophetic. Of the 11 elections that have been held since Johnson won by historic proportions in 1964, the Democratic nominee has lost every Southern state in six of them — and has only come close to sweeping the region once (in 1976) even though the party has nominated Southerners for president five times.

Most Southern states have voted for the Republican nominee for president even in years when Republicans were struggling elsewhere ... even in years when native Southerners were on the Democrats' national ticket.

I have always had mixed feelings about the fierce loyalty of Southerners. I have often felt it was more a point of pride, of not wanting to admit when one has been wrong, than a point of principle.

When Southerners give their hearts to someone, it is usually for life. Likewise, when the South gives its allegiance to a person or a political party, it is a long–term commitment — in spite of the behavior of some philandering politicians.

Giving up on a relationship — be it social or political — is a last resort for most Southerners. It is what you do when all else has failed.

(Regarding the dissolution of social/legal relationships, I have always suspected that attitude has more to do with the regional stigma about divorce that still persists, to an extent, today and the reluctance of many Southerners to legally admit a mistake was made than any theological concerns about promises made to a higher power.)

That's probably the main reason why it was so surprising when Obama won the states of Virginia and North Carolina in 2008. Virginia hadn't voted for a Democrat since LBJ's day. North Carolina voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976 but had been in the Republican column ever since.

For those states to vote for a Democrat after regularly voting for Republicans for years was an admission that could not have been easy for many of the voters in those states to make.

Numerically, it seems to have come a little easier to Virginians, who supported the Obama–Biden ticket by nearly 250,00 votes out of more than 3.7 million cast. North Carolinians, on the other hand, barely voted for Obama, giving him a winning margin of less than 15,000 votes out of 4.3 million.

I'm not really sure what this means for 2012. I mean, the 2008 results can't be explained strictly in racial terms, can they? The white share of the population is about the same in both states (64.8% in Virginia, 65.3% in North Carolina), and the black populations are comparable as well (19.0% in Virginia, 21.2% in North Carolina).

If anything, one would expect that a higher black population (along with half a million more participants) would produce a higher margin for Obama in North Carolina than Virginia — but the opposite was true.

What can be said with certainty is that both states voted Republican — heavily — in the 2010 congressional midterms.
  • North Carolina re–elected Republican Sen. Richard Burr with 55% of the vote. That's pretty high for North Carolina. Statewide races frequently are much closer.

    North Carolina Republicans also captured a House seat from the Democrats.

  • Virginia elected Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell in the off–year election of 2009, providing perhaps the first glimpse of what was to come.

    Neither of the state's senators was on the ballot in 2010, but Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, who defeated George Allen in the 2006 midterm election, announced earlier this year that he would not seek a second term. Ostensibly, his reason is that he wants to return to the private sector, but I can't help wondering if he has concluded that he caught lightning in a bottle six years ago and cannot duplicate the feat in 2012.

    Virginia Republicans grabbed three House seats from Democrats in 2010.
It was less surprising that Florida voted for Obama in 2008.

That's understandable. For quite awhile, Florida has been a melting pot for retirees from all over the nation so its politics tends to be quite different from just about any other Southern state. Until the advent of air conditioning, Florida was mostly a backwater kind of place with a population to match, but in recent decades, the only thing that has truly been Southern about Florida is its geographic location.

In many ways, its diverse population bears watching as an election year unfolds. It may be the closest thing to a political barometer, a cross–section of the American public, that one is likely to find.

The scene of an excruciating recount in 2000, Florida has now been on the winning side in 11 of the previous 12 elections — and conditions in 2008 were probably more favorable for the out–of–power party than at any other time that I can remember.

More than perhaps any other state in the region, Florida's vote seems likely to be influenced by prevailing conditions in November 2012. Obama won the state with 51% of the vote in 2008, but, again, few solid conclusions can be reached based on the racial composition of the electorate. Whites represent a smaller share of the population in Florida (about 58%) than in in Virginia or North Carolina.

But the black vote in Florida is also smaller (around 15%).

In fact, half again as many Floridians are Hispanic (more than 22%), and, while those voters will be affected by economic conditions like anyone else, they may also be sensitive to immigration issues and particularly responsive to proposed solutions to those problems.

There may well be compelling reasons for Hispanic voters to feel overly encouraged or discouraged by U.S. immigration policy under Obama.

What can be said of voting behavior in Florida in 2010 is that Florida's voters made a right turn.

Republicans seized four House seats from Democrats, elected one of the original tea partiers to the U.S. Senate and replaced an outgoing Republican governor with another Republican governor.

There has been persistent talk, in fact, that the senator — Marco Rubio — will be the GOP running mate, no matter who the presidential nominee turns out to be.

And if that turns out to be true, the party really will be over in Florida ...

... and elsewhere in the South.

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