Sunday, January 30, 2011

Reports of the Alabama Democratic Party’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

After a few weeks off to catch my breath, and to deal with everything from the real world that could be put off until after the election (including an unforeseen family health problem; thanks again, all, for the calls and emails), it’s time to take a look at what happened, and why, in last November’s elections.

What, we know. For the first time since the votes were counted by funny-talking guys in blue uniforms, Alabama will have a Republican legislature, and the Tennessee Valley will be represented by an elected Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives. Democrats suffered our first shutout ever in statewide offices. A number of elected local Democrats went down, but the casualty count there wasn’t as bad as it was upballot. Just to pull out some examples, Democratic Sheriffs Jerry Studdard in Talladega County and Jimmy Harris in DeKalb County, as well as Democratic Sheriff nominee Chuck Phillips in Jackson County, handily beat their GOP opponents, even while the statewide ticket was taking a thumping in their counties. So let’s start our analysis with the fact that, despite what you heard a “political scientist” proclaiming on television on election night, Alabamians, even white Alabamians, will vote for at least some Democrats.

Many pundits took the opportunity of this election to call it an ideological refudiation (to borrow a word from an execrable source) of progressive, Democratic ideology. Under this paradigm, moderate and independent voters were reacting to the “liberal” or “leftist” tilt of the Democratic Party. While the message mismanagement (and in some cases, nonmanagement) of the Obama Administration made this a plausible hypothesis, a closer look at the numbers doesn’t bear it out.

The biggest problem suffered by Alabama Democrats in 2010 was nothing less - or more - than a significant upsurge in the white voter turnout. To see clearly how much the white vote increased this year, compare the Democratic and Republican vote totals in two overwhelmingly white counties, and three black-majority Democratic strongholds, in the 2010 and 2006 gubernatorial races:

Democratic 2006Democratic 2010Republican 2006Republican 2010

Note that the Democratic vote in Cullman did not drop off that much, and the Democratic vote in Shelby actually made a small uptick. This was not a matter of traditional white Democratic voters switching parties in significant numbers. This was, purely and simply, a case of a lot of white folks, who had not been voting in recent cycles, coming out of the woodwork last November. (Don’t let anyone tell you that the significant increase in Shelby County is attributable to population growth in the last quadrennium. In the wake of the Bush Recession, housing starts there shrank to a trickle in the runup to the 2010 election.) Neither were the increases in Macon and Greene Counties indicative of a statewide (and offsetting) increase in black turnout; local bingo shutdowns by Bob Riley were almost certainly responsible for those numbers.

Of course, the increased white vote was seriously polarized. Heavily white, but historically Democratic strongholds like Cherokee, Franklin, Marion, and Jackson Counties, went for Bentley. The correlation between race and party choice in this election is obvious:

You may have noticed that the correlation is not so strong in those counties where the black population is under 10%. This is a long-standing historical phenomenon, and many of those counties have been part of the Democratic base. The correlation strengthens significantly as the black population approaches and passes 30%. While this is in part the mathematical result of an overwhelmingly Democratic black vote becoming a larger portion of the electorate, historical precinct-level studies have confirmed that the phenomenon has been manifest within those counties, at the precinct level. This failure of these Democratic base counties to polarize as extremely as other counties provides significant statistical support for a conclusion that it was “new” voters, not switching voters (as in the media narrative), that caused the Republican surge.

What is harder to say is, what caused this increase in white turnout, and its polarization. In part, this is because there is not the depth of exit polling data available that typically follows a presidential election. But it doesn’t take a very seasoned political hand to guess what it was. In 2006, only a handful of political junkies in Alabama knew who Barack Obama was. In 2010, he was President, and the constant focus of the Republican campaign at every level. His what-me-worry messaging style only allowed the GOP to paint him as a scarier, more liberal, and less American figure. Yes, Alabama once again ran the race flag up the pole, and saluted it.

I can see one objection to this analysis, and it bears answering. If race was the determining factor in this year’s white turnout, why did the same thing not happen in 2008, when Obama was actually on the ballot? Why were Lucy Baxley, Bobby Bright, and then-Democrat Parker Griffith (does anyone still remember him??) not swamped in the same racist riptide that caught Jim Folsom, Jr., Susan Parker, and a raft of veteran legislators? It is my rejoinder to this objection that gives me hope for the Democratic Party’s future in Alabama.

To understand what made 2006 and 2008 different from 2010, we have to reset our mental worldviews to the earlier years. We have to avoid the historical amnesia that is more characteristic of Republican voters. In each of the earlier election years, potential voters were treated to a steady diet of Republican incompetence. Katrina, an un-caught bin Laden, two wars dragging on without results, and a growing stream of Bush scandals were part of the national zeitgeist in both election years. By the time of the 2008 election, Lehman Brothers (which was founded in Montgomery) had failed, and the economy had gone into free-fall, on Bush’s watch. Even Bubba, watching Fox News, couldn’t avoid his daily dose of this bad news. Anyone who doubts that this sort of steady diet of bad news can overcome the deepest prejudices or sympathies, needs only look around to see how many Auburn or Alabama sweatshirts (as the case may be) vanish from public view when one of those football teams is going 5-7. In that respect, racists (to their horror) are just like everyone else. Fair weather fans. They simply were de-energized by a tidal wave (no continuation of the football pun intended) of bad news, and stayed home in the 2006 and 2008 cycles.

Since the day of Hippocrates, diagnosis has been the better part of prescription. We cannot replicate the national disasters of the Bush years. (Neither, like the GOP House, should we seek to for political gain.) We cannot, apparently, tutor the President on effective progressive advocacy. But we, as Alabama Democrats, can do a more effective job of sharpening the differences between us and the Alabama Republican Party. We can do a much better job of bringing to voters’ attention the sordid figure of the Wall Street Wizard behind the “Christian” curtain. We can, with skill, create a large measure of both paid and earned media to trim the edges of racist enthusiasm (and, thus, turnout). We can, at long last, and despite sputtering efforts to claim we were doing so, finally have a cycle where the Democratic Party rings the doorbell of every regular Alabama voter, greets him or her by name, and asks for his or her support. I am optimistic about the prospects of this from the comments of newly-elected SDEC Chairman, Judge Mark Kennedy. In his acceptance speech, he promised that “We are going to eat their elephant one sound bite at a time.” This (along with my years of knowing Judge Kennedy, and having helped in his judicial campaigns) tells me that he at least sees where the problem is. I suggest we all do what we can to help Judge Kennedy keep this focus, and resist the “wisdom” of the cliques who would tell him to keep doing things the old way.

Take heart in this. Whatever you read in the pro-Republican “media” in many parts of Alabama, do not become too discouraged. It may well be that the reports of the Alabama Democratic Party’s demise have been, like those of the Sage of Hannibal, greatly exaggerated.