Kerry's Non-Southern Strategy

To hear Democratic strategists and political commentators tell it, the selection of John Edwards as John Kerry's running mate heralds the dawn of a new Democratic day in the South, with the Carolinas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Virginia suddenly in play this November.

After all, as the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne, Jr. points out, since 1960 the three Democratic tickets that didn't feature at least one southerner all lost, while the five that included a son of the South all won. By that logic, Edwards is the perfect pick: he was born in South Carolina, lives in North Carolina, and has a drawl as thick as molasses.

Yet Edwards won't help Kerry win one southern state -- although he will help Kerry win the presidency.

The brilliance of the Edwards selection is not that he will enable Kerry to win states in the South (short of a landslide, they are still completely out of reach), but that he will help Kerry remain competitive in “southern” areas of non-southern states. While huge turnouts in Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee are critical, Kerry can't win their respective states without also racking up votes in downstate Illinois, western and central Ohio, central Pennsylvania, and non-urban Wisconsin. It's in these areas that a southerner's drawl, humble roots, and regular church attendance can make a difference.

To understand why a southerner plays well in parts of the North and Midwest, one has to stop thinking in terms of “red” and “blue” America and visualize the electoral map colored in shades of purple. The American electorate is not as polarized as the red-blue dichotomy would lead one to believe. As Philip Klinkner of Hamilton College pointed out in a recent paper, only about 36 percent of voters in the 2000 election lived in a county that either George W. Bush or Al Gore won by more than 60 percent. That means that two-thirds of the electorate lives in counties that are competitive. To put it another way: The same voters in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Hawaii, Connecticut, and Maryland who provided Al Gore's biggest margins of victory also voted Republican governors into office.

Not only are states more politically diverse internally, but political affiliations and the ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds in which they are rooted do not end at the state line. Recognizing this, the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassInc) conducted an extensive analysis last year of the electorate and re-divided the nation into 10 regions, each with its own distinct political character. In some cases, these regions cross the country; in many cases, states were divided among two or even three different regions. Winning a state, then, often means winning voters who fall into several disparate regions.

Take Pennsylvania. Al Gore won it by four points in 2000; not wanting to lose the state again, President Bush has visited 30 times since taking office. According to the MassInc framework, eastern Pennsylvania -- Philadelphia, its suburbs, and the Lehigh Valley to the north -- lie in the “Northeast Corridor” region, the highly affluent, best-educated, and most Democratic region in the country. The vast middle of the Keystone State lies in “Appalachia,” the oldest, poorest, least-educated, and most rural region. Historically drawn to Democrats for economic issues, social conservatism and national defense turned this region into Bush's second-strongest in 2000. Finally, the western edge of Pennsylvania -- from Erie to Pittsburgh -- sits in the “Great Lakes” region, which encompasses the big industrial cities that line the lakes, from Milwaukee to Cleveland to Rochester, along with their suburbs. This was Gore's third-best region, propelling him to victory in every Great Lakes state except Ohio.

Any Democrat who wants to win Pennsylvania, then, must appeal to cosmopolitan, educated, and diverse voters from the Northeast Corridor; garner enough small-town and rural voters from Appalachia; and win white ethnic, Midwestern voters from the Great Lakes.

Pennsylvania illustrates the balancing act that a winning presidential candidate must perform. Each battleground state this year includes voters from at least two different regions. Democrats have little problem in the more urban, cosmopolitan regions: the Great Lakes, the Northeast Corridor, and the “Upper Coasts” (sections of New England, the Bay Area, and the Pacific Northwest). But they have a tough time winning the rough-hewn regions such as Appalachia and “Big River,” which touches parts of states that line the Mississippi River from Duluth to Memphis.

To win enough electoral votes to take the White House, a Democrat must bridge the cultural gap between the regions in key states. A candidate must appeal to those who wear trucker hats because they are fashionable, as well as those who are actually truckers; those whose Sunday morning ritual includes brunch and The New York Times, and those whose Sunday rituals take place in church; those who believe a bass is an integral part of a jazz combo, and those who believe it's something to catch and release with buddies over a beer.

Edwards helps the Democratic ticket appeal to both the cosmopolitan and the provincial. He moves seamlessly from small-town meetings to the salons of Georgetown and the Upper East Side. He can help Kerry win second cities, small towns, and rural areas that dot the presidential battleground in Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Iowa.

In other words, Edwards doesn't deliver any single state but nevertheless brings geographic balance. The small-town roots and sensibilities so apparent every time he opens his mouth will help Kerry lock down the battleground states throughout the North and the Midwest. And when the votes are counted on Election Day, a Democratic South may not rise again but a Democratic southerner surely will.

Kenneth S. Baer, a former senior speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, runs Baer Communications, a Democratic consulting firm.