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Regions, Hopelessness, Oratory

Ed Kilgore rights that the South isn't hopeless for Democrats and makes a surprisingly strong case. He also says he "not believe we have to nominate a southernor for president to become competitive there, though it clearly helps." In all honesty the "need we nominate a southerner" debate has tended to take place at a shockingly shallow level. As I see it, the basic lay of the terrain is very simple. When a candidate is a governor or senator representing State X, the mere fact that he has won statewide there gives you a strong (though defeasible) reason to believe that he would be able to win that state in a presidential contest. When the state in question is a contested one in presidential politics that fact gives you an advantage. As it happens, George W. Bush has proven in 2000 and 2004 that he can sell himself in Ohio. As of the 2000 GOP primaries, however, this was far from certain. If the Republicans had picked George Voinovich, things might have turned out worse for them, but they could have been reasonably assured ex ante that their man could win Ohio. Ex ante reason to believe that Candidate Y can win State X also gives you reason (though even more defeasible this time) to believe he can win states that are similar to State X.

So give me a Democrat who can win in Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, or Florida with an ideological program that reasonably approximates the Democrats' national agenda, and I'll say that his proven ability to win in the more winnable southern states should be counted as a plus in his favor. But it doesn't necessarily outweigh everything else.

One thing that I think tends to get neglected here because it's so desperately un-quantitative is the notion that rhetoric matters. I don't know much about Michael Dukakis' speaking skills, but I think it's telling that in 1980, 1984, 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 the better rhetoritician won each time. Bush -- due to his fumbling in extemporaneous contexts -- is easy to underestimate as a public speaker, but he delivers a set-piece well, and has some damn good speechwriters working for him. Clinton, though not a classic rhetoritician by any means, was also an excellent public speaker. This stuff isn't, I think, decisive, but it matters. One good thing about Southern Democrats is that simply because it's harder to win in the South, any Democrats who do win there -- especially with the aforementioned "ideological program that reasonably approximates the Democrats' national agenda" -- are likely to be above-average campaigners. It's basically a Darwinian mechanism. It's no coincidence that some of the GOP sends us absurd people like Sens. Bunning and Coburn from places like Kentucky and Oklahoma respectively. A lousy Republican candidate would have a hard time winning in a more competetive environment. A conservative Republican like Rick Santorum who can make it in Pennsylvania is likely to be a sharper dude and, indeed, Santorum is a sharper dude that most of his ideological fellow-travelers from Dixie.

But not every Southern Dem is going to have the speaking skills of a Bill Clinton. I heard Mark Warner talk once and was distinctly uninspired. Maybe he was just having a bad day, so I wouldn't right him off just like that. But maybe not. A couple of correspondents have suggested that Governor Easley in North Carolina isn't all that. Again, I'd like to see for myself. If one of those two really does have the skills, I think it's worth looking at such folks. If not, a more talented politician from a northern state would make more sense.

November 9, 2004 | Permalink


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I saw Mark Warner on C-SPAN once speaking to a high school audience and I was impressed. He has to be better than Evan Bayh even on his worst day.

Posted by: Russ Hicks | Nov 9, 2004 12:33:55 AM


Do u know the dif between "write" and "right"? I won't even broach "rite" and "wright".

Posted by: pilsner | Nov 9, 2004 12:46:29 AM

Easley's is nowhere even close to having the skills. He is a rather boring speaker with no charisma or passion to speak of. He is intelligent and a capable politician, but he doesn't offer the advantages that would support a Southern candidate.

His Southern accent is also rather thick, much more so than Edwards. It could be difficult for people not familiar with the South to understand him.

Posted by: Craig | Nov 9, 2004 1:12:14 AM

"...I think it's telling that in 1980, 1984, 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 the better rhetoritician won each time."

That brings up the interesting question of how much depends on policy and how much on campaigning skills.

Would a Paul Wellstone, say, had he lived and run, done better or worse in "deep red" areas or inspired compensating turnouts elsewhere?

Posted by: Russ Hicks | Nov 9, 2004 1:20:20 AM

You Dhimmicrats better pin your hopes on the praying and God-fearing Christian Barack Osama and any other theist Democrats who are against gay marriage and willing to work with President Bush to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.

Posted by: Modern Crusader | Nov 9, 2004 1:33:37 AM

Warner reminds me of no one as much as Wes Clark. Both are Southern, blandly good looking, technocratic, attained high position before politics, hard working, but not that warm, more than a little distant, and not that great on TV. Right now Clark is the better pure politician of the two but overall they are similar, and Warner actually won something (sorry Oklahoma).

During 2001 Warner's debates with Early didn't help him, but what carried the day was the money he was able to spend, the effective neutralization of cultural issues, the very poorly run GOP effort, and his earnestness towards real solutions for the state. For whatever reason that type of "fix it" message works much better at the state level than the national one. Virginia doesn't have to send freedom on the march, so if the Democrat sounds like he'll fix the schools and leave firearms where they are, he can win.

And I would caution the assumption that winning in the South means one has the personality to win on the national level. It really may be that, in this the region of GOP flamboyance and excess, technocracy is more important than Clintonian people skills.

Easley, Chuck Robb, Roy Barnes, Katherine Blanco, Ronnie Musgrove, Don Siegelman, Jim Hodges, Bill Nelson, Bob Graham, Brad Henry, and Mark Pryor.

Are ANY of them outstanding? I'm glad they won their races, but they're really not a fleet of transoceanic vessels.

Posted by: SamAm | Nov 9, 2004 1:37:15 AM

Whatever they do, the Democrats should not nominate another senator.

In the history of the United States, only two sitting senators have been elected President - Warren Harding and John Kennedy. Since Kennedy, four sitting senators have run for president - Goldwater, McGovern, Dole and Kerry. All four lost. And four current or former vice presidents who were senators before holding the number two job have run - Humphrey, Nixon, Mondale and Gore. All except Nixon lost.

Over that same period of time, everyone who was elected president held the office of vice president or state governor as their most recent elected position.

Posted by: dkervick | Nov 9, 2004 1:40:22 AM

Another example, though not from the South, is Ken Salazar.

That is one bloodless (looking) dude.

Let me put it this way; he beat out a Coors in the "ice cold" category.

Posted by: SamAm | Nov 9, 2004 1:44:40 AM

I like the idea of using the word 'rights' to mean 'writes and is right'.

Posted by: Ethical Werewolf | Nov 9, 2004 1:44:50 AM

I think you're smoking stuff when you say W's a good speaker. He is not. Nor is he an inspiring one. Nor does he belt out the short shit all that well either. He speaks caveman. That's what he does. Brings out the caveman vote. What I'm saying is that the attraction of W's style of speaking derives from an insanely pureed body of diction. Some people do not wish to think in this day and age. If you just say it and KISS, then that's a step up among these folks.

I'm sorry, but I read that rant on Gilliard's page, stayed angry for hours. Look, we *can't* copy Bush. The issue is that he is willing to mangle meanings and context and everything else to say things in the most primitive way possible, tickling the lizard brains. We can't do anything like that and keep our self respect.

And also, saying that Southern Politics is a tougher rumble than other areas is an insult to tough politicians everywhere. Politics is hard, everywhere. What is occuring now is that Southern politic *dynamics* are stronger throughout the country than they used to be. It's not all good ole boy talk. Politics down here can get profoundly and sometimes comically *nasty* here, with escapedes that would completly shame politicians in other areas.

Posted by: shah8 | Nov 9, 2004 1:55:01 AM

As it didn't look like a typo, the correct word is "rhetorician," not "rhetoritician."

Posted by: dogofthesouth | Nov 9, 2004 1:56:15 AM

I agree with Matthew that Democrats don't necessarily need a Southerner to improve their chances.

That much said, there are important reasons to worry about the likes of Obama, Edwards, or Hillary Clinton.

For more on criteria for a candidate, see:

"Messages and Messengers in 2008"

More than the "Who" will be nominated is the "What" we stand for. For more, see:

"The Donkey Gets Its Ass Kicked: Five Lessons for Democrats"

Posted by: Jon | Nov 9, 2004 2:28:28 AM


Posted by: a. | Nov 9, 2004 2:28:41 AM

W may not be a good speaker, but if so Matt's hypothesis still holds because he didn't win in 2000 and the jury's still out this year.

Posted by: Nick Simmonds | Nov 9, 2004 2:37:06 AM

Kentucky isn't part of Dixie and was the last quasi-Southern state to switch to R, in the late nineties.

Bunning was in a fiercely competitive race in 1998, and almost lost again this time. He is an idiot, but his ability to rely on Mitch McConnell's political machine provides him an effective political machine. Anne Northup in Louisville is similarly battle tested.

Your broader point also strikes me as a bit off. A candidate's success in winning state races may or may not translate into the ability to carry that state in a national election - the probative value depends on the specific type of campaign. I'm thinking of Martha Layne Collins, former Democratic governor of KY. Good gubernatorial candidate, not so much presidential - probably the same with Claire McCaskill, the Mo. state auditor who lost the 2004 gubernatorial race by a couple of points to Blunt's kid.

Posted by: Dave M | Nov 9, 2004 2:52:07 AM

I think you're smoking stuff when you say W's a good speaker. He is not. Nor is he an inspiring one.

He's not great without a script, but he can deliver a written address perfectly fine. He made a couple of memorable speeches in the days after 911. One at the National Cathedral, and the other a prime time Oval Office address. There's also those words he shouted with the megaphone when he visited those workers amid the debris of the Twin Towers. Inspiring stuff, no doubt.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Nov 9, 2004 3:22:33 AM

You might want to consider Zell Miller. He no doubt could win a few southern states and he delivers one hell of a stemwinder.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Nov 9, 2004 3:24:38 AM

"Ed Kilgore rights that..."

Ok, now I'm pretty sure he's doing it on purpose.

Posted by: david | Nov 9, 2004 3:43:17 AM

"If not, a more talented politician from a northern state would make more sense."

Once again, let's review past performance.

Since FDR died, here is the popular vote record of Democratic Presidential nominees by region:

From North of Missouri:

1 Win, 7 Losses

Not From North of Missouri:

6 Wins, 1 Loss

Shallow or not, this really ain't that complicated, Matt, especially since we have an extraordinarily talented politician available in Johnny Edwards.

Posted by: Petey | Nov 9, 2004 4:14:53 AM

Warner is not nearly as bad a retail politician as many around here seem to think. He's better than Jimmy Carter was, for example.

But with Edwards around, I think we do have a better Southerner available.

Posted by: Petey | Nov 9, 2004 4:18:34 AM

I think some people really do underestimate the current of Yankee hatred that runs through portions of southern culture. They are a region that did try to rebel, and then got burned to the ground and occupied by northerners. They haven’t forgotten, just look at the fetish for the confederate flag so many of them have. There is a current of distrust for anybody north of Virginia in those states and it really does help to run a Southerner if you want to win them, especially if you are the Democratic Party. To too many of them a vote for a Democratic Yankee reeks of acquiescing to the historical imposition of foreign values unto them. Its just to similar in their minds.

Posted by: Mr Black | Nov 9, 2004 5:20:56 AM

I know you guys like to think that Clinton was hot stuff politically, a regular genius at campaigning, but face facts: He never cleared 50% of the popular vote. Bush the elder wasn't beat by Clinton, he was beat by Perot.

So maybe part of your strategy for 2008 should be trying to encourage somebody on the right to run 3rd party?

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Nov 9, 2004 5:55:51 AM

"I know you guys like to think that Clinton was hot stuff politically, a regular genius at campaigning, but face facts: He never cleared 50% of the popular vote. Bush the elder wasn't beat by Clinton, he was beat by Perot."

Exit polls showed Perot voters would have split evenly between Bush and Clinton in '92...

Posted by: Petey | Nov 9, 2004 7:34:09 AM

Clinton would've exceeded Bush's percentage in both '92 and '96 if Perot hadn't run.

The Big Dog was a uniter, not a divider.

Posted by: Petey | Nov 9, 2004 7:45:29 AM

I like Edwards, but as has been pointed out in a number of places he didn't pull his weight on this ticket. The Dems have a strong base in the Northeast and the West coast. They have a good shot at the industrial Midwest. That's enough to win national elections. Florida always has people moving to it, and Virginia is changing in some ways, so they're worth keeping an eye on. But Iowa and Ohia and Missouri seem much more promising to me than any Southern state I can think of.

Evan Bayh bores lots of people to tears. But speaking to one of Matthew's points, he gets elected in a very hostile environment. (And by the way, what IS wrong with Indiana???)

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Nov 9, 2004 8:18:50 AM

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