January 30, 2004

Democratic Candidates Face Southern Voters

Southern Democrats More Culturally Conservative, Not So Different Otherwise

As the presidential primaries move from Iowa and New Hampshire to the rest of the country, the Democratic candidates for the nomination will face more demographically diverse states, including several in the South. (Note: For purposes of this analysis, Southern states include the following: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.) Southern Democrats are more culturally conservative than are Democrats in the rest of the country. But Southern Democrats agree with their fellow partisans elsewhere on many other issues, particularly in their support for the social safety net. And Democrats, in the South and elsewhere, are united in their desire to see President Bush defeated this fall.

The South has been difficult terrain for Democrats since white Southerners began realigning their party preferences in the 1960s and 1970s. The last two Democratic presidents were Southerners, each of whom captured several Southern states. But the experience of Tennessean Al Gore, the party’s nominee in 2000, was more typical of the party’s recent past. Gore lost all of the states of the former Confederacy — had he carried even one of them, he would have won the election.

The South has become the core of the modern Republican Party’s strength nationally, providing a majority of the electoral votes that put George W. Bush in the White House and giving the GOP its largest percentage of U.S. House seats among the four regions of the country. The Republicans’ advantage in the South has become more important as the region’s population — and electoral clout — has grown. Between 1944 and 1980, Southern states provided only 147 of the total electoral votes. In 2000, the number was 163, and will be 168 this year. (Note: “The South and the GOP,” Rhodes Cook Letter, Feb. 2003.)

Despite the impressive electoral performance of the Republican Party in the South, however, Republicans do not greatly outnumber Democrats there. Overall, 34% of Southerners and 32% of those living outside the South identify themselves as Republicans (and when independents who lean toward a party are included, Republicans and Democrats are tied at 45% each). Among whites, the GOP does have a significant advantage in the South, with 41% of Southerners affiliating with the party, compared with 35% among non-Southerners.

President Bush’s overall approval rating in the South is about the same as elsewhere (58% approve in the south, 55% outside the south), but among whites the difference is larger (66% of Southern whites approve, compared with 58% of whites elsewhere). Bush’s approval among African Americans is as low in the South as it is in other regions. Overall, roughly half of Southern voters (51%) favor reelecting the president, compared with 44% of voters in other regions. And the South/non-South gap is even larger among whites: 60% favor Bush’s reelection in the South, 49% outside of it.

Southern voters are a little more apt to describe themselves as conservative (44% to 37% elsewhere), conversely, more outside the south than in it say they are liberal (19% vs. 15% in the south). On this question, regional differences on ideology are visible among both whites and blacks.

Democrats in the South and Elsewhere

The first Southern stops on the primary trail are South Carolina and Oklahoma (Feb. 3), followed by Virginia and Tennessee (Feb. 10). Georgia and Maryland vote March 2 (Super Tuesday), and if the race for the Democratic nomination is still active beyond that major event, the next big round of primaries on March 9 includes Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Southern Democrats are more conservative on certain kinds of issues, though most of the differences are not especially large. The biggest area of regional disagreement is on cultural matters, including homosexuality, immigration, and — especially among white Democrats — race. On gay marriage, regional differences among Democrats are actually larger than they are among the general public. Only about quarter of registered Southern Democrats (26%) favor gay marriage, compared with roughly half of those (51%) outside the South.

Southern Democrats are 17 percentage points more likely to agree that schools should have the right to fire teachers who are known homosexuals. And Democrats in the South — both black and white — are substantially more likely than other Democrats to say that growing numbers of immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values.

The South has long been viewed as more pro-military than other regions. Many congressional proponents of the armed services have represented Southern states and districts, and a number of important military facilities are located there. Democrats in the South — both black and white — are more supportive of the idea of using military force. Compared with Democrats living elsewhere, more Southern Democrats agreed that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength (a 12 percentage point difference), and more say the U.S. should get even with any country that tries to take advantage of the U.S. (13 point difference).

During the period prior to the start of the war in Iraq, Southern Democrats were more supportive of the idea of using military force than were Democrats in the rest of the country. During the period January-March 2003, 57% of Southern Democrats favored the war, compared with 48% elsewhere. But currently there is no regional difference among Democrats in views of President Bush’s handling of the situation — two-thirds of Democrats across the country disapprove.

The Role of Government

In the post-New Deal era, one of the defining differences between the Democratic and Republican parties has been the role of the government in economic matters. Despite differences with the national Democratic Party on the issue of race, many Southern white voters found the party to be a compatible political home on economic matters. And as black voters gained greater political clout with the passage of legislation such as the Voting Rights Act, Southern support for the party’s stands on regulation and social safety net remained relatively strong.

On questions of regulation, welfare, and the overall performance of the federal government, we find a mixed pattern of similarities and differences between Southern Democrats and their fellow partisans elsewhere. More Democrats in the South than in other regions say regulation of business usually does more harm than good (49% versus 40%), but there is no regional difference within the party in the view that government is usually wasteful and inefficient.

There are only modest differences in views about business profits — big majorities of Democrats in the South and outside of it agree that corporations make too much profit, and most Democrats do not believe that businesses strike a fair balance between profits and the public interest.

Southern Democrats are just as committed to the social safety net as Democrats outside the South. Strong majorities of Democrats in every region agree that the government should take care of people who can’t help themselves. And the same percentages of Democrats in the South and elsewhere (64%) believe that the government should help more needy people even if it means going deeper into debt.

Race and Democratic Divisions

African-Americans are a significant part of the Democratic coalition, and they are an especially large portion of Democrats in the South. Blacks comprise nearly a third of Democratic voters in the South, compared with just 15% elsewhere.

On many issues, black and white Democrats do not differ a great deal. But on some topics, notably on issues relating to race, blacks and whites diverge. In some instances, these racial differences have the effect of lessening the gap between southern and non-southern Democrats overall. For example, compared with white Democrats outside the South, Southern white Democrats are more likely to say the country has gone too far pushing equal rights. But the more liberal nature of the large black population in the South on this issue makes overall opinion among Southern Democrats closer to that of Democrats in other regions.

White Democrats in the South also are less supportive of interracial dating, compared with their fellow Democrats elsewhere, and more likely to say that racial discrimination is rare. But there are no regional differences among Democrats in the view that racial preferences should be used to improve the position of blacks and other minorities.

Region and Religion

Another politically significant difference between Democrats in the South and those in other regions centers on religion. Southern Democrats, regardless of their race, are more religious than Democrats elsewhere. And this heavily influences how Southern Democrats view questions relating to religion, politics and policy.

More than seven-in-ten Southern Democrats (72%) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 55% of Democrats outside the South. Southern Democrats are nearly 20 percentage points more likely to say that they frequently use their religious beliefs to help them make decisions in their daily lives — 57% say this in the South, 38% elsewhere. And more Southerners see nothing wrong with a porous boundary between religion and politics. A majority of Southern Democrats (57%) believe that churches should express their views on political matters; outside the South, only 44% say churches should get involved in politics. And far fewer Southern Democrats than Democrats elsewhere say they would vote for an atheist for president.