Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Are Democrats On The Verge Of Vanishing In The South? A Look At How They're Performing With White Voters in 2014 Senate Contests

Come next month, the days when successful national Democrats were almost exclusively from the South may very well come to an end. Al Gore, left, and Bill Clinton, right, represent the last era of locally popular Southerners making the leap to the national stage.

The Democratic struggle to win over white voters was a well documented failure of the 2012 presidential election, in spite of their four point national popular vote win. Republican Mitt Romney carried whites by a 20-pt margin, a figure only exceeded by Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election in 1984.

But in the South, where a large number of heated 2014 Senate battles will be held in just five weeks, the white disdain for Democrats is even more pronounced.

Consider North Carolina, where Romney won nearly 70% of the white vote. Or Alabama, where he won 84%. Or Mississippi, where he carried roughly NINE in TEN whites! Even in tough years for Republicans, like 2008, they still perform stronger among white voters in the South, relative to how they do nationwide.

Given the large number of high-profile Southern senate races this Fall, I thought it might be interesting to check in on some of those GOP contenders, and compare how they're doing with white voters now to how other recent candidates performed.

Consider the Arkansas Senate race between Sen. Mark Pryor and Rep. Tom Cotton. In an average of polls taken since August (only those that provide racial demographic crosstabs), Cotton attracts 50% of white voters, while Pryor draws 36%. Though that margin surpasses Cotton's overall advantage over Pryor, it falls well short of McCain's 68% among Arkansas whites in 2008, and John Boozman's 65% in 2010. But the 2014 Pryor/Cotton race isn't comparable to those contests in the first place - it was never expected that Cotton would pull off a 20+ point victory.


So the question becomes one of whether Pryor's current 14-pt deficit with white people is high enough for him to lose overall this November. As you can see in the table above, it is - but just barely. And based on past exit poll data, that sounds about right. If Blanche Lincoln had lost the white vote by 14-pts in 2010, she would have drastically improved on her overall 58-37% loss, but still comes up short, at 51-47%. Had Obama lost the Arkansas white vote by just 14-pts in 2008, his twenty-point loss to John McCain would've essentially been a tie. And had Democratic Governor Mike Beebe lost the white vote by fourteen points in 2010 (instead of winning it, as he actually did, 62-36%), he would have defeated Republican Jim Keet by the skin of his teeth, rather than his actual 30 point landslide.

In other words, Cotton's performance with white voters in Arkansas is probably where you would expect it to be in a tied race.
That's not necessarily the case for another Republican challenger in the South - Tom Tillis of North Carolina. Tillis leads Sen. Kay Hagan among white North Carolinians 51-35%, or 16-points. Based on that fact alone, it's hard to see how Tillis could be leading overall in NC if 2012 and 2008 election results are any indication. Consider the chart below:

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As you can see, not even Elizabeth Dole, who lost her seat in 2008 by an 8-pt margin, did as poorly with white voters as Tillis is doing now. She carried them by 18-pts. Even more stark, Mitt Romney won 2.5 times more North Carolina whites than Tillis has averaged in polls since August - and remember, Romney only carried the state overall by two points! So why isn't Tillis losing to Hagan by more than he is, given his less than impressive advantage with white voters? Because context matters, and it's important to remember midterms are generally low turn-out, less racially diverse affairs. If minority voters drop-off this November, Tillis won't need as large of an advantage with whites as he would if he were running in a presidential year. And as most polling has shown, Tillis is likely behind Hagan today. His standing with white North Carolinians bares this out.

Georgia is yet another Southern state where the Republican typically wins BIG with white voters statewide, even when their overall victory isn't quite so large. Consider the 2008 presidential election, where Saxby Chambliss' 44-pt advantage among white voters only yielded him a 3-pt victory overall. In 2012, when Romney won overall by 8-pts, he likely carried the white vote by an astounding 60-pts. Compare those figures to how Perdue has done in polling against Michelle Nunn since August:

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While Perdue's 37-pt advantage over Georgia whites is impressive, he certainly falls short of John McCain, Saxby Chambliss, and Mitt Romney. On the other hand - Perdue probably doesn't need to win whites by 44-pts in a non-presidential election year to win overall. But considering Georgian white's voting preference alone, he's cutting it close.

Finally, take a look at the white vote in Louisiana. Mary Landrieu trails with this group by an average of 43-pts in polling since August. She only trailed among whites by 32-pts during her 52-46% overall victory in 2008. Clearly, if white voter preference in Louisiana right now is any indication of where it will be in November, then Mary Landrieu is going to have a close race on her hands. For example, if she had lost white voters in 2008 by the margin she is currently losing them, all of other things remaining the same, she would have very narrowly lost to John Kennedy, her GOP challenger.

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And remember, under the scenario I noted above, Landrieu would have lost under what was very likely a friendlier political climate than she'll see this November.

Normal caveats apply - lots can change between now and November, campaigns don't operate in vacuums, etc., etc....

But if current GOP averages with white voters in four high-profile Southern states are any indication of the final result - Republicans can probably breathe easy in Louisiana, with Democrats doing the same in North Carolina. Arkansas and Georgia white voter preference would tend to put those states right on the cusp.

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