Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: More on Schaller’s Supreme Confidence That Dems Can’t Win the South

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From the perspective of citizenship, one indisputable good that came of the Democratic primary season was how wonderfully it engaged the electorate. To any pundit or pollster who dares tell me that the ultimate outcome was exactly as they predicted, my reply is that the first right and responsibility of citizenship is the vote. Had the Founding Fathers intended a democracy based on polling, surely they could have (far more easily) set that up!

Tom Schaller’s column in the NYTimes yesterday covered his familiar territory (he did, after all, write the book on the topic!) and it was warmly received in the blogosphere. Pottenhoff at The Electoral Map was one of the rare places I found pushback:

How can you explain the recent election in Mississippi’s First, where Democrat Travis Childers won in a district that is 26 percent black?

A lot of that election had to do with the poor state of the GOP brand, but the value of a candidate walking into a hostile community and asking for votes should also not be underestimated.

One of the most vocal proponents of Democrats fighting to scramble the unfriendly data in the South is Mudcat Saunders, who regularly gives reporters choice quotes about how the party elites — “the Harvards” — have left rural Dems up the creek.

I generally think Mudcat’s rhetoric is a little overzealous, but I do think he has two solid arguments. The first is that when a Democrat takes one vote from a Republican in a red area, it’s really a “two-fer” — One fer the Dems and one less fer the GOP.  So the ROI is double.

The second point is that Democratic candidates attempts to win over Southern, white voters often pay real dividends. When Mark Warner ran for governor in 2001, he hired Mudcat as a rural strategist and Sherry Crumley, a legendary outdoorswoman from southwest Virginia, to chair “Sportsman for Warner.”

In an interview with Sherry in 2006 when I was still at National Journal, she told me that she would often be driving through the hills with the candidate and see a gun or fishing store. Warner would ask to stop, and would walk in and quickly tell everyone, “I’m Mark Warner; I’m running for governor. Some people are going to say I’m going to take you’re guns and just want to tell you that it’s not true.”

Warner ended up winning southwest Virginia on his way to the Executive Mansion, even though the numbers there were daunting.

Last month Schaller participated on a panel with Ruy Teixeira and Sean Wilentz at Salon asking what role did race play with white Democrats in the primary contest? What I found striking was that two of the three expressed honest doubts about the limits of what the numbers could tell us.

Teixeira — “We do know it was a factor, but we just don’t know how much of one because… It’s essentially impossible to disentangle… we have to be careful in inferring too much.” — and Wilentz — “At some level, this all becomes sheer speculation… it’s all aggregates, and you have to try to put it together.” Not a peep from Schaller. He is completely — supremely — confident in his numbers.

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives Democrats have gained two seats in Texas, two in Florida, one in North Carolina, and one in Kentucky, while also defending redistricted Democratic seats in Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, and Louisiana. And there have been two additional gains in special elections in Louisiana and Mississippi:

With these seats alone in GOP hands, Democrats would only have a ten-seat majority in the House, instead of the 37-seat majority that they now enjoy. But there is more: of the 236 current Democratic members of the House, about 72 of them are from below the Mason-Dixon line (give or take whichever states you count as “Southern.”)

This means that roughly one-third of the Democratic caucus is from the South.

And we’ve yet to see what the impact of The Millennial Generation will be.

Me, I am not a political scientist. I am a citizen. A voter. And an observer. I see my neighbors excited about an election in a way they have not been in the five years I’ve lived here. I’ll keep reading the numbers, keep watching the pundits, but when it comes to how this election is going to turn out I just have to wonder if this one won’t be one of those that changes the paradigm.