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.”
The parties battle hard in Florida because its 29 electoral votes, as many as New York has, rank third in the nation behind California’s 55 and Texas’ 38.
“Florida is obviously going to be extremely well-contested by both sides,” Davis said. “I view Florida as probably slightly more Republican than Virginia at this point.”
He predicted a “very close race” in both states. Republicans could shift the odds their way in Florida if whoever is the presidential nominee selects the state’s Hispanic senator, Marco Rubio, as his vice presidential. That scenario has been discussed as a potential way to appeal to Hispanic voters and offset the political impact of Republican resistance to creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Only in two other states, Davis said, does Obama have even an outside shot — and then only if he wins big nationally. Those states are Georgia and South Carolina.
“There is in Georgia a significant urban, cosmopolitan voting base around Atlanta that alters the demographics of Georgia politics,” Davis said. “The rest of Georgia looks a lot like Alabama and Mississippi, but the Atlanta metro area has such a powerful tilt that it does give Democrats a shot at winning in Georgia if all things are optimal.”
Because South Carolina holds its presidential primary early, the state’s Democratic Party has not distanced itself from the national party the way others in the South have because of conservative political domination, he noted.
Davis described South Carolina as “a state that is likely to be won by the Republican candidate but one where if Obama put a certain number on the board nationally, the state could be competitive.”
At this early stage, when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum are battling for the Republican nomination, and Obama leads potential opponents in national polls, what does Davis foresee as the outcome of the Nov. 6 election?
“As of today, I still anticipate a close race nationally,” he said. The dynamics could shift in either direction, he added, depending on how the Republican race is settled.