Dallas Morning News Story on Tower Center Event

On February 21, 2012, the Tower Center held an event in collaboration with the Sixth Floor Museum. The event was The Vital South and Presidential Elections, 1960-2012 and it was held at the Museum where Earl Black spoke.

Point Person: Our Q&A with Earl Black on politics in the South

Does the South matter as much as it once did? Look at the GOP field. The front-runners are from Michigan and Pennsylvania, and Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich really aren’t running as Southerners.Earl Black and his brother, Merle, have studied Southern politics throughout their careers as political scientists. They spoke Tuesday at an event sponsored by SMU’s Tower Center and The Sixth Floor Museum about the vital role the South has played in national politics. Points later spoke with Earl Black, who recently retired from Rice University, about whether the South still matters politically.

The South matters absolutely to the GOP Electoral College math. There is no way the GOP can win without sweeping the American South. It is the largest region in the country. In 2008, it had 153 Electoral College votes. Republicans need to do what George W. Bush did in 2004. And that is sweep the Southern states and Mountain Plains, then divide the Midwestern states. That’s the modern GOP formula.

What about for Democrats?

That’s a different matter. The South once was Democratic, under FDR. If he won all 11 Southern states, he only needed to win a third of the rest of the Electoral College. Today, that’s reversed. The Democratic strategy is the GOP strategy. And it started when Republicans decided they couldn’t win without some Southern support. That began with Eisenhower, who targeted a few Southern states. The goal was to divide the South.

Ironically, that’s what Democrats are trying to do today. If they divide the Southern states, they will need fewer Northern votes to win the presidency.

But look at the presidential race that’s shaping up. We could have an Illinois Democrats  vs. a Republican from Pennsylvania or Massachusetts. Does a candidate’s geography no longer matter?

That’s right. The bottom line is, the parties are so divided by ideology — liberalism for the Democrats and conservatism for the Republicans — that it doesn’t matter where you come from. What matters is if you can unify the party. Democrats obviously are unified under President Barack Obama, but Republicans need to find a candidate who can unify them.

In modern party politics, neither party has a majority of voters identifying with them. That’s why candidates need to unify their party. They then can go out and start winning independents.

Super Tuesday is coming up on March 6. Southern Democrats originally bunched their states together on Super Tuesday to help the region be a kingmaker. But only four Southern states are in play this year. The South doesn’t look like a kingmaker.

That’s increasingly true. The South Carolina primary previously was decisive for the GOP. That started when South Carolina helped Ronald Reagan  become the nominee. And it was important for George W. Bush against John McCain  in 2000. Newt Gingrich carried South Carolina this year, but that win is not going to carry him to a nomination.

Democrats are coming back in cities like Dallas and Houston. But they can’t win statewide. Why should Texas Democrats be optimistic that will change?

Democrats in Texas and Southern states are made up largely of minority voters. Those whites they do have are mostly Jewish or have no religion. That’s a different setting than when LBJ was in power in Texas. The Democrats’ problem in winning statewide offices in Texas is that they have lost white support and haven’t overcome it with growing minority populations. That has not happened, but it could over time.

Do you have any idea when that could happen?

No, not really. It is a long-term process. Democrats haven’t put the coalition together. They tried in 2002 with their “Dream Team” of Tony Sanchez, Ron Kirk and John Sharp, but that ticket crashed and burned. The ease with which Rick Perry won re-election in 2010 also was pretty convincing. You look at exit polls, and the white share of the vote went overwhelmingly to Perry. Democrats need to get their white share up. That will be hard to do in an election like this one, where their candidate is attacked as a Northern liberal.

In what Southern state do you see Democrats returning to prominence?

The ones that Obama carried — Virginia, North Carolina and Florida — are the most likely. They are the most competitive Southern states. If the GOP can’t settle on a candidate this year, some Republicans may stay home. That is the main hope for Democrats in those states.

Do you think LBJ ceded the South to Republicans with his civil rights legislation? He predicted that would happen.

He said that, but it didn’t happen in 1964. It was part of the equation over the longer haul. The bigger problem for Democrats in Texas and the South has been the rise of a big, urbanized, educated middle class. That laid the foundation for a competitive political environment in the South.

Dallas is a big example of that. The difference between metropolitan Dallas today and the one of the 1950s and 1960s is the difference between a modest middle class and a much larger one today. College-educated, white Christians are the heart of the GOP in Texas and other Southern states. Republicans didn’t have that base in the 1950s.

This Q&A was conducted and condensed by William McKenzie, a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. His email address is wmckenzie@dallasnews.com. Earl Black’s email address is black@rice.edu.