Barack Obama & Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention - Charlotte photo by Kris Krug via the kk+ flickr photostreamWednesday night, reporter John Frank tweeted that North Carolina delegates to the Democratic National Convention were sharing high-fives after former President Bill Clinton’s epic 45-minute address.

No surprise there: Clinton’s tour-de-force was a huge hit with Democrats of all flavors in Charlotte and nationally.

But the speech also had a specific goal: to help sell President Obama and the Democratic brand to whites — including Southern whites — who have been an increasingly challenging demographic for the party.

A pre-convention Gallup poll found Bill Clinton has a 63 percent approval rating among whites, compared to just 43 percent for Barack Obama. And as Richard Harpootlian, a Democrat from South Carolina told the Associated Press, “[Clinton] resonates with Southern white folks dramatically,”

Kevin Alexander Gray, a civil rights activist also from South Carolina, compares Clinton’s role with appealing to white voters to how Democrats used to deploy the Rev. Jesse Jackson when trying to mobilize African-American voters. “They used Jackson to ‘vouch’ for white Democrats to black audiences,” Gray told Facing South. “Clinton is vouching to whites for Barack Obama.”

“Bubba’s” mission of appealing to whites, including whites in battleground Southern states, exists in delicate balance with another key goal of this week’s convention: to win over the increasingly diverse South of the future.

San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro photo by Texas Public Radio via their texaspublicradio flickr photostreamA leading symbol of the emerging South was Julian Castro, the 37-year-old mayor of San Antonio who addressed the convention a day earlier. A former aide to George W. Bush said Castro has “a very good chance of becoming the first Hispanic president of the United States.”

Castro’s speech also scored high marks, speaking to the newer-immigrant experience in states like Texas, which gained four Congressional seats and Electoral College votes after the 2010 Census.

Like other Southern states — which now make up one-third of the nation’s Electoral College — Texas owes its growing political clout to growing Latino, African-American and urban communities; two-thirds of the Lone Star State’s growth over the last decade came from Latinos alone.

The strong focus on key women leaders — from Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood and the daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, to First Lady Michelle Obama — also speaks to a growing crack in the GOP’s Southern white base: white women voters.

In 2008, Obama actually did better with white men — 41 percent of white male voters, according to exit polls — than white women (39 percent), in part due to Gov. Sarah Palin being VP on the GOP ticket. But overall, Obama exploited a 13-point “gender gap” to win the presidency.

As NBC News points out, Obama’s current advantage among women voters in Southern battleground states is well below that: 11 percent in North Carolina, seven percent in Virginia and just five percent in Florida.

But with the Republican Party associated with cuts to women’s health programs — and tarred with the inflammatory statements of Rep. Todd Akin and Rush Limbaugh — Democrats see an opportunity to win over women, of all races.

Will the Democrats’ two-tier Southern strategy — striving to reach both an Older South and Newer South — work? That remains to be seen. But given that neither Obama or Romney leads by more than three points in polls of voters in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, it’s clear they’ll need both Souths to win.

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Editor's note: This story originally published at SouthernStudies.org. If you appreciate these stories, please support their work by making a donation at SouthernStudies.org. Photos: Barack Obama & Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention - Charlotte by Kris Krug via the kk+ flickr photostream ; San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro photo by Texas Public Radio via their texaspublicradio flickr photostream - both used under creative commons license.
Chris Kromm

Chris Kromm

I am executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, a non-profit media, research and policy center based in Durham, North Carolina. I'm also publisher and contributor to the Institute's publications Facing South online and Southern Exposure magazine, winner of the National Magazine Award, two George Polk Awards, and other honors. I have appeared on over 300 TV and radio broadcasts for commentary on Southern politics and current issues, including American Public Media's "Marketplace," CNN "Live," C-SPAN, Democracy Now, GRITtv, KPOJ Portland, Minnesota Public Radio, Mississippi Public Radio, NPR's "All Things Considered," Public Radio International's "To the Point," WAOK Atlanta, WBAI New York, WRAL TV North Carolina, WRNO New Orleans, WUNC North Carolina's "The State of Things" and XM Satellite Radio. I contribute regularly to The Huffington Post, and my reporting and writing have also been published in The Durham Herald-Sun, The Hill, The Independent Weekly, The Nation, The Raleigh News & Observer, Salon and other publications. My work focuses on leading high-impact projects that link media, research, policy and community participation strategies to promote equity, democracy and sustainability.

2 Comments
  1. A favorite Democratic question has been why southerners keep electing people who never deliver what they promise — evidence for which is to be found in a plethora of statistics of health, education and general welfare.
    Well, the answer is quite simple. The Republican party has been abusive. Expecting the abused to trust people who just stand by and watch the abuse is just plain stupid.
    Howard Dean’s “fifty state strategy” was designed to remedy that. Many progressives are upset that the Democratic National Committee seems to have dropped the ball. However, the ball has just been passed to Organizing For America, which was easier to re-focus as Obama for America than mobilizing the DNC would have been. Besides, if the DNC still has a role, it should be to coordinate state parties and put more emphasis on down-ticket elections. To a certain extent, the national party organization has been in bad odor with local/state Democrats for a long time. Back in the ’80s, the main DNC interest seemed to be in collecting dues from the states for which the state parties got nothing in return.
    The DNC has yet to fully appreciate the grass roots.

  2. Frank Povah

    America as a whole also needs to take a good hard look at the national attitude to the poor in general and especially in states such as Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, etc. with special attention to the plight of the mountain people.

    A bit of human attention to these citizens (they are not just a demographic) would not only pay dividends politically, but would add more to the nation spiritually than all the platitudes burbled by the mealy mouthed, god-bothering right.

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