Sunday, February 28, 2016

Hillary Clinton’s Southern Strategy

If ever there were a state perfect for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run it was South Carolina.  In fact, looking forward to Super Tuesday, it is a demographic well suited for her.  It is a repeat of Nixon’s 1968 southern strategy, but with a twist.  And that may be a problem for both her and Sanders.

Much has been made of the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire were demographically perfect states for Sanders in that they were heavily white.  Sanders has struggled to break through to people of color, more so with African-Americans than Hispanics, because his message has been more about class than necessarily about race and sees the politics of rich and poor as the defining force uniting the party and his coalition.  Clinton has made her campaign that of unity via identity politics, drawing heavily upon the current coalition of forces that define the Democratic Party and which elected Obama in 2008.  Sanders is challenging that coalition, seeking to build a different one that refines the party along generations and class.

It is no surprise that Clinton did well in South Carolina.  It is a state Democratic Party heavily African-American and relatively conservative.   A perfect demographic for Clinton.  Sanders failed to make many inroads into the African-American community and largely also fell flat with  young people and college students who did not show up.  This is something for him to worry about in the future.

But looking at Super Tuesday Clinton should do well in the Southern states of Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. They look more like SC than they differ.  But Sanders also has his states of Colorado, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Minnesota.  The point is that there is a real possibility that both Clinton and Sanders will do well where they are expected to do so, failing where one would also assume so.  But overall, Super Tuesday’s demographics favor Clinton.

In some ways the Clinton strategy is a twist on the Nixon southern strategy, or on challenging the notion that Democrats no long can win in the south.  Yes Clinton will do well in southern primary states, but there is no evidence that she will do well there in a general election.  Her husband had mixed success in the south in 1992 and 1996 and 20 years later, it is even less likely that the south will vote Democratic in a presidential election, especially for Clinton.  White conservative southerners are probably not going to vote for her no matter what.  Thus, Clinton is doing well in states where the Democrats probably will not win or even challenge as a rule during the 2016 general election.  Winning the south does little except to rack up delegates to  get the nomination.  As I constantly point out, the issue is how (Democratic) candidates do in swing states among swing voters compared  to Republicans.

This is important because the race for the Democratic nomination is far from over, even after this Tuesday.  Clinton has some of her best states up front here and if Sanders can survive the demographics look better.  However, and this is the challenge–he does need to figure out how to reach out to people of color much in the same way that Clinton needs to reach out to liberals and to young people.  Neither of them can win the presidency without making a credible move to winning over half of the Democratic Party.  So much has been written about how divided or torn up the Republican Party is, but Clinton and Sanders too are showing a powerful demographic split within their party.  But more importantly, both need to reach out to the swing voters, and here there is some evidence that Sanders does better based on the first four contests.

Neither candidate can assume that the supporters of the other will just naturally come along and vote for them if the others get the nomination.  This is a bigger problem for Clinton.  Those supporting Sanders are either less likely to vote if she get the nomination, or they are independents, with whom Clinton has a difficult time, especially in the critical swing states.  Conversely, Sanders were he to get the nomination, would perhaps benefit from the fact that older persons are more likely to vote and that people of color are solid supporters of Democratic candidate in general elections, and would probably be unlikely to vote for any Republican.  But as we know, turnout among people of color  is often a problem, and it is not clear how well he can motivate them to vote.

Overall, Clinton did exceptionally well in SC and should also do well in pursuing her southern strategy, but it is not clear that such a strategy is a winning one for the 2016 election.

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