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Democrats Shouldn’t Give Up On The South

After incumbent senators in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina were defeated in 2014, some liberal commentators want Democrats to give up on the South. The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky argues, “It’s lost. It’s gone. A different country.”

Not so fast. There are a few problems with the argument that “the South is lost.”

1. What do you mean by the South? Democrats are arguably doing their best in at least 20 years in three of the five most populous southern states. President Obama won Florida two consecutive times. In 2008, Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win in North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Even as Obama lost the Tar Heel State in 2012, Democratic House candidates there won a majority of the vote. Not only was Obama the first Democrat to win Virginia since 1964, but the state has two Democratic senators for the first time since 1973, and Terry McAuliffe was the first gubernatorial candidate of either party to win the governorship when his party held the presidency since 1973.

So maybe people really mean Democrats are hopeless in the Deep South? That’s a bit harder to rebut. Then again, you’re also talking about just a handful of states.

2. There are still Democrats in the South — even the Deep South. Democrats hold U.S. congressional seats in every former Confederate state except Arkansas. Even if Democrats cannot win statewide in places like Alabama or Mississippi, they still hold a base of power in these states. Yes, most of these congressional seats are from majority-black districts, but those seats are worth every bit as much as those held in majority-white districts.

3. We’ve been here before. On the presidential level, the South isn’t all that much more Republican-leaning than it was 14 years ago. President Obama did 17.7 percentage points worse in the 11 former Confederate states in 2012 than he did in the rest of the nation. John Kerry did 16.7 points worse in 2004. Al Gore did 15.6 percentage points worse in 2000.

4. Blue Dog Democrats may return. Democratic hopelessness in the South is being driven, in part, by the results in 2014, when several of the party’s well-known incumbent senators lost seats (Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas, for example). But that’s more of an anomaly than you might think.

For elections occurring just two years ago, my colleague Dhrumil Mehta and I found the explanatory power of incumbency matched its historical average relative to the past presidential vote. Had the senators up for re-election in 2014 run in the national environment of 2012, they probably would have done a lot better. Heck, Bill Nelson did quite well in 2012 in a lot of northern Florida, which has voting patterns very similar to those in the Deep South.

5. You never know when the next wave is going to strike. Another thing Dhrumil and I found was that wave elections are a lot more common than they used to be. Every election since 2006, except for 2012, was a wave year. In the waves of 2006 and 2008, Democrats were picking up House seats in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia. They nearly won a Senate seat in Tennessee. The 2014 wave, on the other hand, helped Republicans pick up governorships in solid blue states such as Illinois and Maryland.

Most predictions of a “new normal” in politics are fleeting — Karl Rove had plans for a permanent GOP majority in the early 2000s, and before that Republicans had a lock on the White House (until they didn’t) and Democrats had a lock on Congress (until they didn’t). Democratic extinction in the South isn’t likely to be any different.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.