Monday, November 20, 2006

Whittling Dixie, Part II

In my earlier post I republished several bullet points posted at The Gadflyer by Tom Schaller to explain why he believes this month's mid-term elections vindicated his position outlined in his book, "Whistling Past Dixie". The following is the first installment of my unsolicited, point-for-point rejoinder, adjusted to reflect the corrected criteria outlined in the update to my original post:

1) Schaller says, "5 of 6 gubernatorial pickups outside the South (84%)": True enough. 5 of the 6 new Democratic governors came from outside the south (defining the south as the states that made up the confederacy). In what will be a recurring them here, this analysis ignores, A) the limited number of seats up for grabs in the south in the first place and B) existing Democratic governors in the south.

So yes, 84% of the Democrats' gubernatorial pickups were gained outside the south. At first glance that may look like a very significant figure. However, when one considers that 28 of the 36 governorships contested were also outside of the south (78%) that number looks a lot less impressive. The small variance that does exist between southern and non-southern states here (6%) is not an eye-popping number. It is certainly not large enough to justify conclusions like Schaller's. In fact, one could argue that it actually disproves his point because, at least on a percentage basis, the Democrats' performance in the south is fairly comparable to their results outside of it.

Also, three of the seats in contention in the south were already held by Democrats. This means that any wins in those states (wins they did get, by the way) go by undetected using Schaller's statistic which only measures new "pickups".

Applying a similar methodology to these gubernatorial races, without filtering the results for pickups we find that 3 out of 8 gubernatorial elections held in the south (OK, AR, TN) were won by Democrats (37.5%). Not a majority (yet) but just one win shy of 50%. This hardly qualifies as a blowout.

Furthermore, a quick check of the National Governors Association's website (PDF file) reveals that there were six existing Democratic southern governors. The entries in bold represent seats in contention in this election:

  • Kathleen Blanco (Louisiana)
  • Michael Easley (North Carolina)
  • Brad Henry (Oklahoma)
  • Phil Bredesen (Tennessee)
  • Tom Kaine (Virginia)
  • Joe Manchin (West Virginia)
When added to the new Democratic southern governor or Arkansas elected Tuesday you arrive at a grand total of 7 out of the 13 southern governorships held by Democrats (54%). Looking at the totality of the data, in what possible way can this be construed as evidence that the Democrats should write off the south as a lost cause?

2) Schaller says, "5 of 6 senatorial pickups outside the south (84%)": True again but, as is the case above, by narrowing the focus to pickups alone this analysis ignores the limited number of senate seats up for grabs in the south to begin with. The south only represented 4 out of the 16 seats the Democrats could have possibly picked up. Conversely, that means that 12 of the 16 possibilities (75%) were available outside the south so it should come as no surprise that most of the gains also occurred outside the south in a comparable proportion.

By using this statistic Schaller also ignores existing seats already held by Democrats which were retained in these elections. A list of US Senators at the Senate's website shows that there were 2 southern seats already held by Democrats that were in contention this year. They were Bill Nelson's seat in Florida and Robert Byrd's in West Virginia. The Democrats won them both.

Take the Virginia seat acquired by Jim Webb and add it to the 6 total existing democratic seats in the south…

  • Blanche Lincoln (AR)
  • Mark Prior (AR)
  • Bill Nelson (FL)
  • Mary Landrieu (LA)
  • Robert Byrd (WV)
  • John Rockefeller (WV)

…and you end up with a total of 7 out of the 28 seats held by Democrats (25%). Not as strong a figure as the gubernatorial numbers, I'll admit, but hardly a case for giving up on the south altogether. Without these seats there is no democratic majority in the senate for any of us to celebrate over.

(Results culled from CNN)

Again, although these figures show that the Democrats have some work to do in the south they don't represent a compelling case for giving up on that work altogether. In this election in particular we've been given a good reason to think the opposite approach is appropriate.

Underscoring this point is this glaring factoid: No defending Democratic governor or senator lost his/her re-election bid this year; not in the south or anywhere else. Not a single vacated governorship or senate seat previously held by a Democrat was won by a Republican. Absolutely every single instance of turnover in this election happened at the expense of Republicans in both the south and elsewhere. The disaffection with the GOP is a nationwide trend. Any call for the Democrats to intentionally squander that opportunity in the south or anywhere else is just plain crazy bordering on suicidal.

There are now 7 of Schaller's bullet points to go. I will press on further in future posts…


joshua holland said...

For what it's worth, I did some math, and found that 31% of the U.S. population lives in the 11 states Tom chose as his analytic framework. That's another way to measure relative success, expecially in terms of governors and senators which aren't apportioned according to population.

The question of what is and isn't the South is itself problematic, and worthy of some skepticism. If you want to refute his numbers, you really should limit yourself to the eleven states that are his focus, if only to take on his argument on his own terms.

And that would mean not including West Virginia because while it didn't exist at the start of the Civil War, it broke off during the war specifically in response to Virginia's secession and joined the Union in 1862 or 1863.

And then there's Kentucky, a state that is certainly part of the cultural South. Kentucky was divided between North and South during the war, and Tom doesn't count it. Missouri is also complex, and there's this whole historical pissing match about whether there were 11, 12 or 13 states in the Confederacy.

In my view Tom should have either chosen states that are commonly considered part of the South today, or included all the territories that fought with the South, which would include Oklahoma and parts of Kentucky.

Oh, and if you consider me a celebrity, I think you're setting the bar a bit low ;-)

FearItself said...

Good point about West Virginia. Thanks.

Although I did consider trying to mirror his exact framework, my overall thinking here was more in line with your last paragraph. He should have included all the region now considered by most the cultural south regardless of their status in the confederacy. At the very least, if he must use the confederacy as his baseline he should do just that. Use the confederacy as the baseline and include Kentucky and Oklahoma at a bare minimum. I can live with excluding Missouri since I know of no one who considers it "the south" regardless of it's confederate ties. But to exclude Kentucky and Oklahoma diminishes the usefulness of the whole analysis in my view.

I guess my point is not to refute his numbers per se but the conclusions he reaches based on those numbers. He is quoting accurate figures, I just don't think the ones he's selected, at least in the posts I've seen, mean as much as he seems to think they do. One of the reasons for that is his narrow view of what "the south" is to begin with. By eliminated so much of the south from his framework he almost seems to be saying, "The south is hopeless, provided you only consider the hopeless parts."

PS - The bar for celebrity status has certainly been lowered beyond all meaning but I didn't do it. I blame cable TV.