It was hot as Hades on June 5 in the little mountain town of Bristol, Virginia. But that didn’t stop hundreds of southwest Virginians–in the most staunchly Republican part of a state that hadn’t voted Democratic for president since 1964–from streaming into the local high school gym to whoop it up for a liberal, mixed-race fellow from Chicago with a mighty suspicious moniker. Fresh off his lopsided, nomination-clinching primary victory in North Carolina, Barack Obama had chosen–to the mystification of political experts–to launch his general election campaign not in the “battlegrounds” of Pennsylvania or Ohio but in a remote Southern backwater containing 17,000 souls who’d given George W. Bush 64 percent of their vote in 2004.
Strangest of all, he spoke to these people in exactly the same way he had addressed stadiums full of urbanites in Philadelphia or Cleveland. “It’s not just struggles overseas. It’s also struggles here at home that are causing so much anxiety,” he declared without the merest hint of a drawl. “Everywhere I go, I meet people. They are struggling to get by. We just went through an economic expansion period…where corporate profits were up, the stock market was up…and the average family income went down by a thousand dollars. The first time it had ever happened since World War II where the economy’s growing, but you have less money in your pocket.”
The folks in Bristol cheered at that, and they listened attentively as Obama detailed his healthcare plan. But what brought them to their feet was this: “When I announced [my candidacy] I was convinced the American people were tired of being divided–divided by race, divided by religion, divided by region.”
From the start of his campaign, when he brashly promised to compete and win in Southern states, Obama grasped something that only Howard Dean, among Democratic heavyweights, had recognized: not only was the South changing fast, demographically and culturally, but nobody had more reason to be sick to death of all those artificial divisions than Southerners themselves. For forty years, the South had been shunned and denigrated by national Democrats who looked at the country’s largest chunk of voters and saw nothing but a uniform sea of racist, fundamentalist, xenophobic dimwits.
Efforts to appeal to these mental and moral midgets, Democratic pundit Tom Schaller argued in his much-cited 2006 book, Whistling Past Dixie, had only watered down the party’s progressive message. “When Democrats give the president authority to start a preemptive war in Iraq, they accede to Southern bellicosity,” Schaller wrote. “When Democrats go soft on defending social policies, they lend credence to the Southernized, ‘starve the beast’ mentality of governance. When Democrats scramble around to declare that they, too, have moral values, they kneel in the pews of southern evangelism. This absurdist catering to the worst fitting, least supportive component of the Democratic coalition must cease.”
“Everybody always makes the mistake of looking South,” John Kerry repeatedly huffed during the 2004 primaries. Like Al Gore before him, Kerry avoided that “mistake” with a vengeance, shutting down his campaign efforts in every Southern state but Florida before Labor Day and refusing to set foot, even once, in Democratic-trending states like Virginia during the general election campaign. The South? Republicans could have it.
Obama begged to differ. Conventional wisdom advised Democratic presidential candidates to bend over backward to look like “regular” Southern guys–tote a gun, adopt an accent, pretend to be a NASCAR freak, run around with a Holy Bible tucked under each arm and, if all else failed, campaign atop a hay bale (as Michael Dukakis once did in North Carolina). Obama, precisely the kind of Democrat who was supposed to be an impossible sell in the South, eschewed such fakery. He looked South and saw not stereotypes but–wonder of wonders!–Americans.
The Senator from Illinois showed up to campaign not just in exploding urban and suburban areas (where he won big) but also in towns like Bristol. He talked–seriously, soberly, in detail–about healthcare, the climate crisis, education and kitchen-table economics. He understood that while most Southerners remain cultural traditionalists, they are also increasingly progressive on economic and environmental issues. That insight best explains why Obama won three of the region’s five largest states (Virginia, North Carolina and Florida), and earned the fifty-five electoral votes that lifted him from a narrow victory to a landslide.
And voilà! The wedge issues that had fueled the GOP’s Southern successes ever since Richard Nixon became afterthoughts, not obsessions–try as the Republicans did to stoke the same old fires. It was in Guilford County, North Carolina, where Sarah Palin made her controversial proclamation that she was happy to be in “Real America.” On election day, Guilford County went 59 to 41 percent for Obama, a nine-point swing from 2004.
As soon as the incongruous results from Dixie came in, the pundits and pols began scrambling to explain them away. Surely something fluky had happened. Obama had won, some said, on the strength of record black turnout and support–eliding the fact that he’d won considerably more white votes in the region than Kerry, and that the most heavily black states in the South had remained Republican. It had been such a historically lousy year for Republicans, others insisted, that they were bound to lose even some Southern turf–ignoring the fact that Obama made his gains by out-organizing Southern Republicans for the first time in modern history. (In North Carolina alone, the campaign had fifty field offices and more than 20,000 volunteers.)
Regionwide, Obama won the majority of the under-35 vote from all races. He doubled Kerry’s vote among young white evangelicals. He blew McCain away among Latinos–the South’s swing vote of the future. And he did it with the same message and same organizing that fueled his victory in the rest of the country. America, he said shortly before the election in another Virginia town, Roanoke, “will rise or fall as one nation.”
As we say in the South, it’s about damn time.