Can Democrats Recapture the South?

The Democrats are hoping to compete with Republicans and win at least some southern states in November. Matt Bai, who wrote the article, "South Poll" in Sunday's New York Times Magazine talks with host Liane Hansen.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The Democrats will now leave the West and head to South Carolina. In this race, the candidates aren't just trying to sell voters on their messages. They're also selling the Democratic Party as a whole. That's a tough job. The last Democratic presidential candidate who won in South Carolina was Jimmy Carter.

Matt Bai is the New York Times magazine's political writer. His article "South Poll" appears in today's issue.

Welcome.

Mr. MATT BAI (Political Writer, New York Times): Thanks, Liane.

HANSEN: Why have the Democrats had such a difficult time in the south?

Mr. BAI: Well, that is a question that has preoccupied much Democratic conversation over the last few decades. But probably, the greatest factor and the most commonly accepted was the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s -beginning with that, and Lyndon Johnson, when he signed the Voting Rights Act, was famously known to have said that he was signing away the next generation of Southern voters to the Republican Party. And in large part, the next couple of decades would gradually bear that out. Democrats, in the face of that estrangement, receded from the area and ceded it to Republicans altogether.

HANSEN: But you seemed to point out in your article that the Democrats are pretty optimistic that they might actually win the south this year. Why? What's bringing on the optimism this time around?

Mr. BAI: Well, I don't know that they're optimistic they can win the whole South. But I think they're optimistic they can compete everywhere and expand the electoral map in the last couple of elections. And what's changed is obviously the conditions in the country. There's just widespread discontentment with the war, and now the economy is turning into the major issue of the campaign, which is really bad for Republicans because Democrats always do better on that front.

And you have, you know, increasing numbers of independent voters. And independents are more than willing to shift sides if they think they need to. And so I do think that the rising number of independents is a very favorable condition for Democrats because a lot of people who've been considered Republican voters are very likely to entertain another option this year.

HANSEN: Hmm. What do you think has changed then - the party shifting toward the south or the south itself changing?

Mr. BAI: I think both. I don't think the Democrats have made any more concerted effort to go into the South. I do think the conditions around the politics in the South have changed. Politics in the country have certainly changed and that just the widespread alienation and discontentment with what this Republican government has wrought has opened new doors for the Democrats that they themselves have not frankly done much to open.

But then also, the South has changed. There's no question that the new South, as it's often called, is more open-minded. It's different. It's more progressive. And there are a lot of folks in the South who are very eager to get pass the legacy of segregation and the legacy of racism and the legacy of these divisive social battles.

HANSEN: Matt Bai is the New York Times magazine's political writer. His article "South Poll" appears in today's issue.

Thanks very much.

Mr. BAI: Any time. Thank you, Liane.

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