Obama faces uphill battle in Deep South

Kenneth J. Cooper | 3/7/2012, 7:47 a.m.

This week Republican presidential candidates tested their campaign appeals in the South, the political heartland of their party.

The South also has the highest concentration of African Americans, but, because voting there remains politically and racially polarized, it is the hardest region for a Democratic presidential candidate to win states and pick up electoral votes.

Four years ago, Barack Obama bucked historical trends and won in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. A Democrat had not won in North Carolina, for instance, since a southerner named Jimmy Carter did in 1976. Another son of the South, Lyndon Johnson, was the last Democrat to capture Virginia, in 1968.

To varying degrees, President Obama stands a chance to repeat his victories in those three states in the early handicapping of Artur Davis, a former congressman and 2010 gubernatorial candidate in Alabama.

“I think Obama probably has the best chance in Virginia, second best chance in Florida, and third best chance in North Carolina,” said Davis, who in Congress represented a predominantly black district from 2003 to 2011.

Davis, a Harvard College and Harvard Law School graduate, lumped Virginia and North Carolina together because, unlike in most of the Republican-dominated South, the major parties have near equal political strength in those two states.

“North Carolina and Virginia are states that have a very evenly matched electorate at this point. They both have a significant component of white liberals, as opposed to moderate conservatives,” explained Davis, now a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

He pointed to influential populations of white liberals in northern Virginia across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., and in North Carolina around Raleigh-Durham, Chapel Hill and Charlotte, where Democrats will hold their national convention this year.

The outcome in both states, he added, is likely to reflect how Obama’s reelection campaign fares nationally.

“If Obama loses, he will likely lose Virginia and North Carolina. If he wins, there is a fair chance he will have won one of those states. If he wins comfortably, there’s a chance he will win both of them,” Davis said.

The Alabaman distinguishes Florida, the region’s second-biggest electoral prize after Texas, from the rest of the region because of its distinctive population.

“Florida I don’t even count as a southern state, frankly, because of the mix of demographics in that state—the large number of northern-born individuals, the ethnic politics of that state,” he said, referring to the large Hispanic vote in south Florida.

 Democratic presidential candidates have experienced up-and-down results in Florida. Obama won four years ago, Al Gore narrowly lost the disputed recount in 2000, and Bill Clinton was victorious in 1996 but not in 1992.

“Florida is a state that tends to swing sharply in one direction or another, and people who know Florida politics seem to think it was swinging solidly to the right after 2010,” Davis said in a recent interview. “On the other hand, the unpopularity of the governor, (Rick) Scott, seems to have taken a little bit of the wind out of Republican sails down there.”