The New York Times ran a story this morning that raised the idea of Obama putting Republicans on the defensive in the South. At issue was what happened in Mississippi's first district special runoff election Tuesday night. The question has been asked in terms of what the outcome (Democrat Travis Childers won in a district that handed Bush over 60% of the vote in 2004.) meant for congressional Republicans, but what does it mean for the presidential race? In late February, The Fix asked a similar question based on the observation that the higher a state's African American population, the more Republican it voted in the 2000 and 2004 elections (Here's my analysis.). Well, that means the South. The Obama campaign has shown the ability to bring many new voters in to the political process during primary season and many have been black. As Merle Black predicted in the Times piece, African American turnout will be high this fall, and that is likely to put the Republicans on the defensive to some extent.
Where and how that higher level of turnout makes the GOP work in the region are the real questions. As the FHQ electoral college maps (see links in the right side bar) have shown, Obama's strength in the South is on the periphery: in Virginia, North Carolina and Texas. The further in to the Deep South the discussion goes, the less likely Obama is to do well, despite increased (or historical) turnout among African Americans. Increased black turnout is one thing, but when it is combined with disaffection among white and typically loyal Republicans across the region, things become more troublesome for the Republican Party. If you are the Republican Party now, you have to hope that both Tuesday's runoff results and the prior special election results were just the product of an energized group of Democrats turning out in numbers well above average for two typically low turnout types of elections. This was a high salience, competitive election (and will be again in the fall), though, and that is more ominous for the GOP. When the trend goes beyond just low turnout in a special runoff election and veers off in direction of disaffection, the GOP, on both the congressional and presidential level, will have to spend time in states in which they don't usually spend too much money and effort having to defend.
Time and effort expended in the South is time and effort that could be spent in swing states. That, more than anything prove to be the power of Obama's ability to bring more states to the table than does Clinton in the general election. If McCain has to work in traditional red states while Obama works on Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, that would give the Illinois senator a decided advantage in the general election.
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