Does Obama put the South in play?

Could the South be contested territory again this election year? The New York Times this week looked at the role Sen. Barack Obama could play in making the South competitive for the Democrats.

It's definitely clear that Obama will change the Southern political dynamic in 2008. Obama's drubbing in West Virginia this week suggests that what once were the South's "swing states" may be out of reach.

But his ability to mobilize large numbers of African-American and young voters -- who are turning out in record numbers this year --may force Republicans to play defense in Deep South and Mid-Atlantic states that they haven't seriously campaigned in for decades:

[I]n Southern states with large black populations, like Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia, an energized black electorate could create a countervailing force, particularly if conservative white voters choose not to flock to Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, predicts "the largest black turnout in the history of the United States" this fall if Mr. Obama is the nominee.

To hold these states, Republicans may have to work harder than ever. Already, turnout in Democratic primaries this year has substantially exceeded Republican turnout in states like Arkansas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Some analysts suggest that North Carolina and Virginia may even be within reach for the Democratic nominee, and they point to the surprising result in a Congressional special election in Mississippi this week [which elected Democrat Travis Childers] as an indicator of things to come.


Most of the Times experts end up concluding that it's a long shot for Obama to pick up most of these states. David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, after noting the "astounding" black turnout for Obama, still says, "I don't anticipate him winning Mississippi."

But there are two wildcards at play in the South this year. The first: Obama's ability to boost the vote among Democrats' most loyal voters -- African-Americans -- as well as bring record numbers of new voters into the process.

The second: John McCain's weakness among the Republicans' most loyal voting block in the South, conservative Christians. In North Carolina, McCain only garnered 74% of the primary vote on May 6, despite having a lock on the nomination. Over one out of 10 Republicans -- 12% -- registered a protest vote for evangelical Mike Huckabee.

Conservative Christians aren't the only Southern Republicans with questions about McCain. The GOP's active libertarian wing -- which feeds off the distrust of government that runs through Southern conservatism -- also seems to have doubts. Seven percent of NC Republican voters went for Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr is now actively pursuing the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination.

In other words: Two of the Republicans' biggest voting blocks in the South are disenchanted, and the most loyal and energized Democratic constituencies in the South are mobilizing in record numbers.

That might not be enough for Obama to take Southern states under our winner-take-all system. But it will help Democrats in down-ticket races in these states, and compel McCain and the Republicans to spend precious time and resources in states they're not accustomed to defending.

Image: Map of "Purple America," 2006