MICHAEL DUKAKIS may have thought he was reaching moderate Democrats with his " good jobs at good wages " mantra, but he really got nominated in 1988 because the Southern vote split among Gore, Missouri’s Richard Gephardt, and South Carolina native Jesse Jackson. Dukakis’s 41 percent in the least Southern of Southern states, Florida, made him the front-runner. (Four years later, Tsongas got 35 percent in Florida — not a huge drop from the Dukakis benchmark. Because he faced only Clinton, however, he lost by such a wide margin that his campaign never recovered.) Kerry can hardly hope to be so lucky in 2004. Gore isn’t going to risk his reputation by groveling for another chance against George W. Bush; if he can’t wrap up the nomination before the primaries begin, he’ll settle for a place in the history books as the guy who got screwed by the Supreme Court in 2000. Gephardt isn’t any more likely to prolong the agony; if he faces a fight in every Southern primary, he’ll step aside and return to his leadership post in the US House with his dignity intact. If neither runs, there may be a battle for the South among Edwards, Indiana senator Evan Bayh (whose state dips into Southern terrain), and a late entrant, but that battle will take place before the primaries begin. Remember that the party’s last crowded and dragged-out primary race put Dukakis at the top of the ticket — the kind of mistake that most Democrats don’t want to repeat.
There are some parts of the country where a Southern accent seems to pose a liability — and they happen to be where Kerry is raising almost all his money, according to finance reports released two weeks ago. In early August, the Boston Globe reported that Kerry raised $2.18 million in the first half of 2001, including $900,000 from Massachusetts, $492,000 in California, $200,000 in the Washington, DC, area, and $164,000 in New York City — all areas where primary voters were cool toward Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton even after it was blindingly obvious that their nominations couldn’t be stopped. (Jerry Brown’s defeat of Clinton in Connecticut, another state that often rejects Southerners, was the biggest upset of 1992, but it came too late to mean anything.) Depending on how the primaries are scheduled in 2004, Kerry could probably win scattered victories against any Southern candidate (except Gore) all through the spring, but they wouldn’t be nearly enough to net him a majority of convention delegates.
Then there’s the issue of electability in November. In the August 6 issue of the New Republic, Franklin Foer describes — and ridicules — attempts by the Democratic National Committee to make the party more palatable to rural areas, where Gore won only 37 percent of the vote last fall. Foer argues that moving the party to the right on gun control and other " cultural issues " will only jeopardize recent Democratic gains in suburban areas. This is not a new concern: as far back as 1976, Jimmy Carter came within two points of blowing what was supposed to be an easy victory over unelected president Gerald Ford. The near-catastrophe came because the born-again peanut farmer was surprisingly weak in affluent, well-educated Northern suburbs — losing states that John F. Kennedy had won in 1960, such as Connecticut and New Jersey, and even doing worse than George McGovern did against Richard Nixon in places like Lincoln, Massachusetts, and Marin County, California.
On the face of it, Carter’s weakness in suburbia (which got worse in 1980, contributing to his massive defeat) would seem to strengthen the case for a nominee with a track record of winning suburbanites, such as Kerry or Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman. But this argument failed miserably in 1988: Dukakis, who had no problem winning suburbia in his Massachusetts races, got only 43 percent of the suburban vote against George H.W. Bush. By contrast, Gore won 55 percent of the suburban vote against Bush the Younger last year, and was far stronger than Dukakis even in Northern states like New Jersey. (These figures come from Ruy Teixeira and John B. Judis’s forthcoming book The Emerging Democratic Majority, quoted in Foer’s article.) Perhaps Kerry can do even better than Gore’s 55 percent, but the Democrats have certainly been going in the right direction with Southern nominees. Why tamper with success?
Besides, a contemporary Southern candidate like Edwards doesn’t seem to threaten the urban-suburban coalition that gave Gore a popular-vote win last November. He doesn’t have Carter’s pious demeanor, or Clinton’s unfortunate association with the phrase " trailer trash. " Until recently, Southern Democrats tended to win elections by combining rural votes with those of the urban poor. Pro-choice and anti-gun, Edwards won in North Carolina by winning the cities and suburbs, and by winning both the most-educated and the least-educated voters — the same way Democrats now win in the North. Assuming that he’s not a complete stiff on the campaign trail, it’s hard to argue against Edwards on the grounds of electability; if he holds on to all the states that Gore won and adds his own North Carolina, he’s got an Electoral College majority.
Back in the primaries, the question is whether Kerry could accumulate delegates against Edwards (or Gore or Bayh) anywhere in the South. He might score some delegates against the more populist Gephardt, whose support for farm subsidies and opposition to free trade could bomb in the suburbs. But it’s hard to imagine any scenario in which the cautious, patrician Kerry does well among rural voters and big-city African-Americans, and you still need one or the other to win Southern primaries.