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How the Democratic Party Lost the South

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

PROSPERITY, S.C.  – Erik Grantham walked out of Stable Steak House on Main Street, through a door hand-painted in bright yellow with “Jesus is the reason.”

“I have not been home in months,” he said, leaning against his truck as if to emphasize his exhaustion. “I am a welder but there is no work at home, so I travel, going from job to job across the state.”

Dressed in stained overalls and sipping a Coke, he said he would not be home for Saturday’s Republican primary. He hopes to be there for November’s election, to make his voice heard.

“I guess you could call me a ‘yellow-dog Democrat,’ just always vote that way,” he said, puffing a cigarette before flicking it artfully across the street.

Yet he will not vote for President Obama or any other Democrat again: “I voted for him the last time because that is my party. It is not anymore.”

Grantham, 47, reflects the once-proud Southern white Democrat that the party began bleeding in 1948 during a convention battle between civil-righters and Dixiecrat states-righters. The Republican Party really didn't capitalize on that until 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower won some southern states.

Richard Nixon developed the strategy of competing in the Deep South, which typically was barren land for Republicans. While the results were mixed for him, his brilliant move marked the start of the South turning on Democrats.

“As a new generation developed, the people who were conservative Democrats and Dixiecrats mostly became Republicans,” explains Bert Rockman, Purdue University political-science professor.

“There were momentary revivals for the Democrats, in 1976 with Jimmy Carter and 1992 with Bill Clinton, but the die had been cast.”

In 2008, Democrats enjoyed a bit of a turnaround as minorities and highly educated whites supported Barack Obama in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida (which he won) and Georgia (which he lost).

Obama is relying on three of those (Virginia, North Carolina, Florida) for re-election; he currently is under water in state-by-state approval ratings.

“My guess is that the Dems are cooked in the Deep South,” Rockman said.

In the simplest terms, whites, especially white men, voted about 88 percent for John McCain in 2008. That same voter element in the Deep South is deeply opposed to national Democrats, as it has been for some time.

“As Obama might say, this is the guns-and-God crowd, fundamentalist and hostile to the Dems, though some local good old boys can win every now and then and African-American candidates can win in African-American districts,” said Rockman.

Edgefield, S.C., native Ernest Lee, a celebrated African-American artist known for his free-standing mobile art gallery, stood in front of his parked truck on U.S. 76 surrounded by his paintings of chickens.

“They call me ‘The Chicken Man,’ ” he said.

Local legend says that he gave up on Democrats after the last election.

“I say, throw them all out, from the White House on down,” Lee explains.

Standing by his remarkable, life-sized painting of rhythm-and-blues singer James Brown, Lee said it is hard to admit he is disappointed in Obama: “I want to say, they just need to give him a chance.

“But, then, I think what we need is a big change. There is too much dependency-think in Washington.”

Rockman believes such voters as Grantham and Lee likely cannot be won back, at least not by today’s Democrats.

“Obama won some southern states in 2012 by appealing to minorities … well-educated whites in the metropolises and the young, especially college kids,” he said.

How ironic that the South – home to Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, the fathers of modern Democrats – would abandon its forefathers’ party.

Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democrats favored the common man’s influence on government; both supported states rights, and strongly warned against federal intrusion into states’ affairs.

Yet Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democrats of a generation ago are today’s independent voters – another complicated problem for Obama.

Late last week, a New York Times poll showed a majority of independent voters have soured on Obama and lack a clear idea of what he hopes to accomplish if re-elected.

“I like him,” artist Lee says of Obama, “but they need to change the party at the root and start all over again.”

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