Can Obama take a stand in Dixieland?

At the start of every presidential race, the Democrats perform a masochistic ritual. They promise to take a stand in Dixieland, get in touch with their inner NASCAR, sweet-talk the Southerners with a heavy emphasis on faith and flag. The aim, every time, is to capture some of those states and thereby clinch the election. Care to guess how well the Democrats have fared lately?

Eleven Southern states compose the Old Confederacy. The last Democratic nominee, John Kerry, won zip and lost 11. The previous nominee, Al Gore, won zip and lost 11. Indeed, all Democratic nominees since 1980 combined won nine and lost 68.

Yet Democrats persist in thinking they can score on the GOP's home turf – as evidenced, this time around, by Barack Obama's decision to spend roughly $8 million (and that's just his initial outlay) to sell himself in TV ads in four Southern states. Obama opened 20 campaign offices in Virginia, a state that hasn't voted Democratic since 1964. Either he's smart to make these moves, which are designed to expand the battlefield, or he's merely the latest Democrat to play Captain Ahab in a futile pursuit of the party's great white whale.

Lots of Democratic strategists believe it's nuts to whistle Dixie; one prominent commentator-academic, Thomas Schaller, has insisted for years that the reflexive Democratic urge to look southward is a “counterproductive exercise” and that the party should instead look westward in its quest to tally 270 electoral votes. Even Southern-born President Clinton – while winning four Dixie states in his ‘96 re-election race – barely finished first in the tally of all Southern voters, performing far better outside his own region.

On the other hand, consider this: No Democrat has ever won the presidency without capturing some Southern states. This year, the Old Confederacy holds 153 electoral votes. Nationwide, there are 538 electoral votes on the table. Do the math. If Obama cedes Dixie, he has to win 72 percent of the electoral votes everywhere else. And that's one reason Howard Dean, the party chairman, has long been touting the importance of a “50-state strategy” to ensure a broader playing field.

GOP gained from white flight

The hitch, however, is contemporary Dixie's antipathy toward national Democrats. It all started with race. President Lyndon Johnson's signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act triggered massive white flight into the Republican Party. In subsequent decades, the GOP built Southern dominance by masterfully exploiting that sentiment – stoking white hostility toward welfare and affirmative action. A top party leader, Ken Mehlman, acknowledged this a few years ago, while addressing the NAACP: “Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today, as the Republican chairman, to tell you we were wrong.” Now he tells us.

But the Democrats face cultural obstacles. Dixie is ground zero for evangelical Christians and is far more inhospitable to labor unions than other regions. In North Carolina, one of the states Obama is targeting, roughly 3.7 percent of the workers are unionized – which puts North Carolina last in the national rankings. Dixie is also festooned with military bases and is home to millions of service retirees.

So it's fair to wonder: How can a black upstart from Chicago, with scant national security credentials, expect to pick off any of these states? The South hasn't broadly supported a Northern Democrat since JFK in 1960, before the fallout over civil rights.

Obama, to his credit, is plucking the right chords in his new ads. A commercial playing in Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida seeks to place Obama's personal journey at the heart of the American dream, thereby echoing what N.C. Democratic chairman Jerry Meeks told me two years ago, when he sought to describe his ideal '08 nominee: “We need to hear a life story that Southerners can appreciate. A life story that embodies the theme of America as a land of hope and opportunity.”

Will N.C. be a battleground?

North Carolina has a huge black population and millions of transplanted Northerners in the academic triangle near Chapel Hill – perhaps enough to give Obama a real shot, although the state hasn't voted Democratic since 1976. Georgia, too, has a huge black electorate, plus it has home-boy Bob Barr, the former congressman now running as the third-party Libertarian candidate, who could bleed conservative votes away from John McCain. At the least, Obama might force McCain to expend precious resources just to defend a state that would normally be a slam dunk.

And, as for Florida, perhaps the zeitgeist has changed. New Democratic voter signups have outpaced their GOP counterparts by a 7-to-1 margin since the start of the year – and that's without the Obama camp trying to register anybody. Besides, you know already that Florida is not a typical Southern state, especially if you've ever stood in line for the early-bird special in Fort Lauderdale.

There's no way to know whether Obama will stick in the region or pull out early as Kerry did. It ultimately could depend on Southern reaction to the first Obama-McCain debate and whether Obama hits the themes Dixie holds dear. He may ultimately find more fertile turf in the newly blue-trending western states of Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.

But it's safe to say that if a black guy with a liberal record can penetrate Dixie, this election truly should be considered transformative.