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Obama's Southern Strategy

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Barack Obama's 2008 campaign strategy aims for more than winning the presidency. If he holds the twenty states John Kerry won in 2004 and adds Ohio, Obama will have a majority of the electoral vote. But he's not satisfied with that: Obama will contest more than a dozen states Bush won easily four years ago, including many in the south.

The latest polls indicate Obama is close in four southern states: Florida, where McCain leads Obama by a scant 2 percentage points; Georgia, where McCain's advantage is 6 points; North Carolina, where McCain is up by 4 points; and in Virginia where they are tied. Obama is running TV ads in each of these states and also has field operations in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, where some polls shows McCain's lead in single digits. There are important Senate races in five of these states - Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia - and polls indicate Democrats have a good chance to win several, if not all.

It defies the conventional wisdom to believe that a Democratic presidential candidate could prevail in what has been a bastion of conservatism since the Nixon era. In 2004, Kerry lost most of these states by more than 10 percentage points; his closest margin was 5 points in Florida. It seems paradoxical to suggest that brown-skinned Barack Obama would close this gap, perhaps win in North Carolina, where Kerry lost by twelve points. Nonetheless, Obama's campaign has a compelling three-part strategy.

The first part is to play upon McCain's inherent weaknesses as a candidate. One is his age: many voters believe the 71-year-old Arizona Senator is too old to be President. Another weakness is his connection to President Bush, who is extremely unpopular. Obama's comparative youthfulness underscores his claim to represent change, a new way of looking at America's problems, a message that appeals to younger voters. Another McCain weakness is the fact many evangelicals do not see him as a fellow traveler, as a committed Christian. Even though McCain has paid lip service to conservative evangelical positions on abortion and gay marriage, to many southern Christians he lacks religiosity. To many Republicans, McCain is more reminiscent of General George Patton than President Ronald Reagan, bellicose rather than inspirational.

The second part of the strategy involves changing the composition of the southern electorate. The Obama campaign is aggressively registering new voters throughout the U.S., believing that they are inspired by Obama's hopeful message. In the south they are enlisting African-American voters, who already constitute more than 30 percent of the electorate in Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In Florida and Texas they are registering Hispanics, 20 and 34 percent of the electorate, respectively. Everywhere, they are courting young voters who prefer Obama to McCain by wide margins. They are also signing up independents. While 36 percent of voters now identify as Democrats, another 36 percent define themselves as Independents -- and the remaining 28 percent are Republicans, whose numbers are steadily declining. Obama leads McCain among Independents by a 46 to 39 percent margin.

The third part of the Obama strategy recognizes the importance of religion in the lives of southern voters. In 2004, George Bush got 61 percent of the vote of those who attended church at least once per week. According to the latest Gallup poll only 50 percent of the same base prefers McCain. Thus Obama's candidacy has the potential to cut into a recent Republican base, one that is particularly important in the south.

Several factors argue in favor of this strategy. One is that Obama is more comfortable talking about his faith than is McCain. Another factor is that Obama has elaborated his "faith-based" agenda, while McCain has not, merely stated that he supports what Bush did. On July 1st, Obama spoke of "a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships," noting "the challenges we face today - from saving our planet to ending poverty - are simply too big for government to solve alone." Obama cited the importance of "faith and values" in his life and noted his work as a Chicago community organizer was partially funded by a Catholic group.

But the most important factor in Obama's southern strategy may be recognition of a seismic shift in white evangelical voting behavior. In exit polls conducted after the 2008 Ohio primary, 40 percent of self-identified evangelical voters said they cast their ballot for a Democratic candidate - compared to the 24 percent that voted for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. More significantly, the poll "showed that 54 percent of evangelical voters identified themselves with a 'broader agenda,' beyond abortion and same-sex marriage to include ending poverty, protecting the environment, and combating HIV/AIDS." The Obama campaign is targeting these "broader agenda" Christians.

It seems likely that Obama will win one or more of the seven southern states he's targeting. And, his campaign will help Democratic senatorial candidates in these states. On November 4th the formerly red south will turn shades of purple.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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