Democrats Must Tighten Grip on Sun Belt Voters

The Democratic Leadership Council, a major group of centrist Democrats, met recently in Columbus, Ohio, to discuss the future of the Democratic Party and to consider what Democrats need to do to win national elections.

They might have taken a moment to look at the numbers, because therein lies the story. A recent study by the Brookings Institution says it all: “The Electoral College Moves to the Sun Belt.”

Electoral votes move around after each once-in-a-decade census. They follow population growth trends. Electoral votes are based on the number of Congressional seats each state has plus two extra votes for the state’s two U.S. Senators. And Congressional seats are reallocated each 10 years to reflect population growth patterns.

The reason that the Brookings study is so important is that as a rule, Republicans have been doing better in the Sun Belt (the South and West) and Democrats, as a general mater, have been doing better in the Snow Belt. If Democrats don’t learn how to campaign better in the Sun Belt, the party may be over.

Let’s be very specific. According to the Brookings study, the Sun Belt controlled 271 electoral votes after the 1970 census and the Snow Belt controlled 267 electoral votes, for a net margin of only four. After the 2000 census, the Sun Belt controlled 313 electoral votes and the Snow Belt controlled 225 electoral votes for a margin of 88 electoral votes. Following the 2030 census (just 25 years from now), projections are that the Sun Belt will control 342 electoral votes and the Snow Belt only l96 votes, for a margin of 146 votes.

There are some exceptions to all this – Democrats win some Sun Belt states (California, Oregon, Washington and Maryland) and Republicans do win some Snow Belt states (Ohio, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska), but the overall pattern is set. Thus, Republicans currently have a built-in growing margin in the Electoral College if Democrats don’t make significant changes.

History demonstrates the recent dominance of the Sun Belt rather dramatically. During the last 40 years, every person elected President regardless of party has come from the Sun Belt: Lyndon Johnson (Texas), Richard Nixon (California), Jimmy Carter (Georgia), Ronald Reagan (California), George Bush (Texas), Bill Clinton (Arkansas), and George W. Bush (Texas).

During these same 40 years, Democrats have lost presidential elections every time they nominated someone from the Snow Belt: Hubert Humphrey (Minnesota), George McGovern (South Dakota), Walter Mondale (Minnesota), Mike Dukakis (Massachusetts), and John Kerry (Massachusetts). The only time Democrats lost with candidates from the Sun Belt were Jimmy Carter (running for re-election) and Al Gore (Tennessee).

So what must Democrats do? Nominating someone from the Sun Belt or someone who clearly resonates with concerns of the Sun Belt is the obvious answer.

Beyond that, there are several other approaches that must also be undertaken.

For openers, Democrats must stop the bleeding among Hispanic voters who have been trending toward Republican candidates in recent elections. Hispanics are key swing voters in Sun Belt states like New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Texas, Florida and California. All of these states went Republican in 2004 except California. Democrats cannot permit this to become a permanent situation.

Additionally, Democrats must find ways to make inroads in the Southern part of the Sun Belt which is now overwhelmingly Republican. Border states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Virginia may be the best shots.

Finally, Democrats must win back some of the Snow Belt states that they have lost in recent presidential elections such as Missouri, Iowa and Ohio. Blue collar, middle class voters are the key target audiences in those states. Democrats must establish that they are not hostile to religious values and that they have something to offer on basic economic issues to be competitive in these states.

Our country is best served when we have two truly competitive parties. As a Democrat, I hope my party can figure out how to get back in the game.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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