Democrats May Need to Look to Dixie for a Winner

If history is a guide, Democratic New Englanders like Howard Dean (search) and John Kerry (search), both seeking to become the next president of the United States, will have a tough time getting a foothold in the Southern states.

The South has become a solid source of support for the GOP, and some experts warn that regional politics will continue to matter in a country that hasn't elected a Democratic president from outside the South since John F. Kennedy (search) in 1960.

"A Democrat has to crack the South. If [former Vice President Al] Gore had carried a single Southern state, he would be president," said John J. Pitney Jr., professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

"I think the regional base matters more to the Democrats. Republicans have created a natural base in the South and the way Democrats can overcome that is to nominate a Southerner," Pitney said.

But not everyone believes location is everything. Despite the political geography, voters do not rank regional ties first when they consider candidates, said Emmett H. Buell, professor of political science at Denison University.

Geography is still important in terms of candidates' abilities to appeal to voters in battleground states and in states traditionally considered strongholds of the opposition party.

"I don't think regional politics are unimportant, but I think the importance lies not in where the candidate comes from," but in his or her ability to appeal to voters from other regions, Buell said. Positions on Iraq and the economy, rather than a candidates' birthplace, will earn more scrutiny by voters, he added.

The last three Democratic presidents have all come from the South. Lyndon B. Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, sprang from Texas. Jimmy Carter was governor of Georgia and Bill Clinton emerged from Arkansas.

Conversely, presidential candidates hailing from the North -- Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale and George McGovern, who all come from states close to the Canadian border -- were less than triumphant in their general elections.

Raymond Wolfinger, professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley, said regional politics are particularly important south of the Mason-Dixon line.

"People outside the South are not so preoccupied with their unique history. It seems to me that Southerners are more likely to have a 'he's-one-of-us' orientation," Wolfinger said.

Every time Democrats have nominated a liberal Northerner, "it's been a bit of [a] disaster," added Robert Johnstone, professor of politics at Earlham College in Indiana. "There’s a strain of thought in the Democratic Party that says a Democratic candidate cannot win unless he gets some Southern electoral votes ... and the Democrats can’t overcome that by nominating a Northern liberal."

But Democrats still have a lot of the country to work with. While the South has shifted its allegiance toward the GOP over the years, Democrats have seen the Northeast and Pacific Coast turn reliably toward them in recent elections. Gore won almost all the Northeast and Pacific Coast states in 2000.

And of course, the Midwest, considered a bellwether region in presidential elections, is critical to any nominee's chances. Most Midwestern voters swing between parties, and their instincts have proven reliable. For instance, Ohio, with its 20 electoral votes, picked the winner in all but two presidential elections in the 20th century. 

While geography may not be a first-rung issue in the general election, it plays a much greater role in the primaries, where party loyalty is taken off the table.

"If you are a Democrat and all the candidates on the ballot are Democrats" then home state advantage grows in importance, said William G. Mayer, professor of politics at Northeastern University.

Geography has already played a role in the early leads in New Hampshire held by Dean, who hails from Vermont, and Kerry of Massachusetts. According to recent polls, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has also taken command in South Carolina, another early primary state.

Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt has built a strong following in his neighboring state of Iowa, but experts do not primarily credit his Midwestern roots with this lead.

"Being from Missouri, I don’t think has much to do with it," said Buell, who called Gephardt's labor ties much more important.

"He's not so much known as a Missourian as someone beholden to organized labor," to which many Iowa voters belong, said Johnstone.

Johnstone added that while their regional ties may help the candidates in the primary voting, if they want to win the general election, Democrats will have to attract Southern voters, and that means nominating a Southerner like Edwards or Arkansas native Wesley Clark.