In the South, Partisan Voting Gets Stronger

Posted June 8, 2005 at 6:01pm

Are you ready for “premature partisan polarization”?

No, it’s not a medical condition that can be treated by Cialis, as Republican pollster Rob Autry joked at a conference here on Southern politics earlier this week. Rather, it represents a shift that is already having a major effect on American elections.[IMGCAP(1)]

Surveys from 2004 show that voters have become less and less likely to cross party lines when voting for president or Members of Congress. Not only that — these voters were also paying attention, and quite possibly making up their minds, early in the election cycle.

Typically, voter interest in elections peaks in October and November. But according to Autry’s data, 63 percent of voters told pollsters in February 2004 that they were “very interested” in the election — 8 and 15 points higher than the percentage who had said they were very interested in October and November of 2000 and 1996, respectively. And in 2004, the degree of interest climbed all the way until Election Day, finishing up at a remarkable 74 percent.

While it’s possible that a confluence of unusual factors made 2004 unique, both Autry, of the firm Public Opinion Strategies, and Democrat Fred Yang of the firm Garin-Hart-Yang, agreed that early interest in elections has gone hand in hand with increasing party-line voting for federal offices.

“Something has happened in the 21st century with President Bush and Democrats,” Yang told the conference, sponsored by the University of North Carolina’s program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life. “It’s harder for Democrats in federal races to win crossover votes from Republicans.”

Yang added that signs of heightened voter interest in the 2006 midterm elections are already showing up in early polls.

“Democrats are saying they’ll vote for the Democrat, even if it’s someone they’ve never heard of, and Republicans are saying they’ll vote for a Republican, even if it’s someone they’ve never heard of,” he said. “This heightened partisan voting is starting at an extremely early stage.”

Yang’s detailed analysis of exit polls for Southern states laid bare the challenge facing the Democrats in presidential and Congressional races. While the South may exaggerate national trends somewhat, it is not entirely divorced from political trends elsewhere.

“The formula in the South for Democrats is that you try to get 90 percent-plus of the African-American vote and 40 percent of the white vote,” Yang said. “And typically, Democrats do better among white women than they do among white men.”

But this longstanding gender gap, at least in the South, vanished in 2004, Yang said — evidence, perhaps, of the ballyhooed transformation of “soccer moms” into “security moms” after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And the disappearance of this gender gap took with it Democrats’ hopes of winning federal races in the region.

In North Carolina, 2000 Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore won 28 percent of white men and 34 percent of white women — a 6-point gender gap. But four years later, Democratic nominee John Kerry won 25 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

The shift was even clearer in South Carolina. Gore won 20 percent of white men and 31 percent of white women in 2000, while in 2004 Kerry won 22 percent of both genders. In other words, Bush in 2004 managed to cut South Carolina’s 11-point gender gap down to zero.

In the meantime, this presidential edge for the GOP appears to have carried over to Congressional races.

Autry noted that in the South’s 95 Republican-held House districts, Bush won 92 of them, and Kerry won just three. (Bush also managed to pick off 24 of the 59 Democratic-held districts in the South.)

Partisan ties also mattered in Southern Senate races. In Kentucky, political unknown Dan Mongiardo (D) nearly knocked off incumbent Sen. Jim Bunning (R) in 2004, but ultimately he found his chances dashed by partisan realities. Kerry voters backed Mongiardo 94 percent to 6 percent, while Bush voters backed Bunning 82 percent to 18 percent. Unfortunately for Mongiardo, there were many more Bush voters than Kerry voters in Kentucky.

A particularly striking case of how party affiliation can shape campaign reality occurred last year in South Carolina, where a hard-fought Senate race pitted former Rep. Jim DeMint (R) against state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D).

In June 2002, a poll asking voters for their assessment of Tenenbaum — who was then seeking re-election and was not yet a candidate for Senate — found 21 percent of Republicans with positive feelings toward her and 12 percent with negative feelings. That’s not bad for a South Carolina Democrat these days.

But by August 2004 — several weeks before the GOP unleashed its heaviest artillery against her — Tenenbaum’s ratings among Republicans had plummeted to 16 percent positive and 48 percent negative. Her negatives among white voters rose from 9 percent to 34 percent over the same period, and even soared among Independents, from 3 percent negative in 2002 to 27 percent negative in 2004.

The bottom line: Shifting Tenenbaum’s identity from a “South Carolina” Democrat to a “national” Democrat was the kiss of death.

Such findings came as no surprise to former Rep. Glen Browder (D-Ala.), another conference attendee.

“In a ‘Brand X’ federal race in the South, if you’re a Democrat, you’ve got to be a better candidate, run a better campaign and hope that your opponent screws up,” he said. “If you don’t get those three things, your opponent is going to win.”

Browder called it “the national rationalization of politics,” adding, somewhat wistfully, that if a young Southern politician came to him for advice, “I’d say run as a Republican — that’s where the future is.”

But Yang’s figures do offer Democrats a silver lining. As bad as they’re doing in federal races in the South, they are still showing signs of life for governorships and lower state offices.

A good example can be observed right here in North Carolina, where Gov. Mike Easley (D) won a relatively easy race for a second term in 2004.

Last year, both Kerry and Senate candidate Erskine Bowles (D) eked out a mere quarter of North Carolina’s white-male vote and less than a third of its white-female vote. But Easley snared 42 percent of white men and 44 percent of white women, and he picked off 19 percent of Republicans — three to four times the number that Kerry and Bowles drew. Most impressively, Easley crushed his Republican challenger among Independents, 59 percent to 39 percent.

Elsewhere, Democratic governors have chalked up strong popular support in Virginia (Mark Warner) and Tennessee (Phil Bredesen) and won hard-fought races in states such as Louisiana.

“If a Harvard-trained physicist [Bredesen] could win the governorship of Tennessee in 2002 when ‘values’ were prominent, it shows some hope for the Democrats,” said Yang, who polls for Bredesen.

While Autry notes that Republican governors are doing just fine in most of the other Southern states, it’s true that the GOP has yet to rout Democrats for non-federal Southern offices to the same degree it has for president and Congress.

So is the bifurcation between state races and federal races here to stay? Or are we in the final stage of a process that will soon find every office, from governor down to dog-catcher, inevitably devolving into partisan battles?

On the one hand, most conference participants agreed that more polarization, not less, seems to lie ahead.

Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University, said that the expected growth in blogging — which tends to be staunchly ideological and partisan — could increase polarization in the general public.

“The Internet is not causing partisanship, but I think the Internet will greatly exacerbate the partisanship that’s out there,” she said. “On the Internet, it’s OK to say things you’d never dream of saying to someone’s face. And ‘red’ blogs link to ‘red’ blogs, and ‘blue’ blogs to ‘blue’ blogs.”

On the other hand, there are also signs that state-level politics could remain different, participants said.

While state-based political blogs aren’t unheard of, most bloggers prefer to take up national issues, said Ryan Thornburg, the political editor of washingtonpost.com. This may be so because national news tends to draw a wider audience and greater attention from the mainstream media. Whatever the reason, the lack of state blogs may insulate state politics from the polarization now being seen nationally.

And both Autry and Yang agreed that state legislative races are shaped more by their state’s gubernatorial dynamics than by federal races. Despite pressure from national movements such as opponents of same-sex marriage, states will likely see such issues as budgets and education spending continue to define how most state-level races play out, Autry said.

“Just as Fred tells his state-level clients to focus on education, we do too,” he said.