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GOP Has Lock on South, and Democrats Can't Find Key

A Times analysis shows that Bush's sweep of the region went even deeper than first appeared.

December 15, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The generation-long political retreat of Democrats across the South is disintegrating into a rout.

President Bush dominated the South so completely in last month's presidential election that he carried nearly 85% of all the counties across the region -- and more than 90% of counties where whites are a majority of the population, according to a Times analysis of election results and census data.

The Times' analysis, which provides the most detailed picture yet of the vote in Southern communities, shows that Bush's victory was even more comprehensive than his sweep of the region's 13 states would suggest.

His overwhelming performance left Sen. John F. Kerry clinging to a few scattered islands of support in a region that until the 1960s provided the foundation of the Democratic coalition in presidential politics. Kerry won fewer Southern counties than any Democratic nominee since the Depression except Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and George S. McGovern in 1972, according to data assembled by The Times and Polidata, a firm that specializes in political statistics.

In Southern counties without a substantial number of African American or Latino voters, Bush virtually obliterated Kerry. Across the 11 states of the old Confederacy, plus Kentucky and Oklahoma, whites constitute a majority of the population in 1,154 counties. Kerry won 90 of them.

By contrast, Bill Clinton won 510 white-majority counties in the South eight years ago.

"We are out of business in the South," said J.W. Brannen, the Democratic Party chairman in Russell County, Ala., the only white-majority county in the state that Kerry carried.

The results underscore the enormity of the challenge facing Democrats as they try to rebuild their Southern support. Most ominously for them, the patterns suggest that under Bush, the GOP is solidifying its hold not just on Southern white conservatives but white moderates as well, a trend also apparent in exit polls of Southern voters on election day.

"As the older white moderates leave the scene, they are being replaced with younger moderates more willing to vote Republican," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Atlanta's Emory University and the author of several books on Southern politics.

Compounding the Democratic dilemma is the growing tendency of Southern whites who vote Republican for president to support GOP candidates down the ballot. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won slightly more counties across the South than Bush did this year; but after Reagan's landslide, Republicans held 12 of the 26 U.S. Senate seats in the region.

After Bush helped the GOP win six open Southern Senate seats last month, Republicans now hold 22 of the 26 Senate seats in the 13 states.

That is the most either party has controlled in the region since Democrats also won 22 in 1964 --ironically, the election in which the white backlash against the Civil Rights Act allowed the GOP to make its first inroads into the South.

Forty years later, under a Southern Republican president, the South has become an electoral fortress for the GOP. Outside the South, Democrats hold more House and Senate seats and won many more electoral college votes than the GOP last month. But the GOP's advantage in the region has been large enough to overcome those deficits and create Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress and the electoral college.

And the magnitude of November's Republican sweep last month suggests the GOP advantage across the region is expanding.

"I don't think that for 50 years we're going to be a Republican section of the country," said former Democratic National Committee Co-Chairman Donald L. Fowler of South Carolina. "I really believe we have the potential to turn a lot of this around in a decade. But it will take constructive, directed, consistent work to do it. It's just not going to happen by itself. We're in too big a hole."

Politically, the South includes 13 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Together they cast 168 electoral college votes, more than three-fifths of the 270 required for election.

Many political analysts see Bush's commanding performance across the region -- and Republican gains in other elections during his presidency -- as the fourth wave in the GOP's Southern ascendance.

The GOP, which was founded in the 1850s as a Northern party opposed to the expansion of slavery, won very few Southern states in presidential races for a full century after the Civil War. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt won every Southern state in all four of his presidential campaigns.

Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower had some Southern success in the 1950s. But the GOP planted its first lasting roots in the region amid the white backlash against the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts under Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson in the mid-1960s.

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