Right now, said Merle Black, the presidential election looks like a cakewalk for President Bill Clinton. But if Black's predictions ring true, the election will be closer than it looks right now. The South, he said, will play a large part in how both the presidential race turns out and in the balance of power in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Black, the Asa G. Candler Professor of Politics and Government, spoke on March 21 as part of the University's Great Teachers Lecture Series.
An analysis of of the shift in Southern politics from 1990-1996 shows drastic changes, resulting in the first time since Reconstruction that Republicans have held a majority of Southern congressional seats. In the 1994 election, Republicans took a majority in both houses, shifting the role of initiating public policy from Clinton to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Gingrich, at that point, according to Black, "became the most important elected politician. It also reduced Clinton momentarily to being an onlooker in the process."
Black said that Clinton and the Democrats ran into trouble in 1994 because of Clinton's failure to pass health care reform. That dispirited the Democratic base and reduced turnout for the elections, while producing a surge among Republicans. Voters, according to Black, "were voting against Clinton. Nowhere was this surge more important than in the Southern states."
In the 11 Southern states of the old confederacy, the number of white Democrats in Congress dropped from 72 in 1990 to 39 in 1996. During that same period, the number of black Democrats rose from five to 17, and the number of white Republicans rose from 39 to 69. That situation was even more pronounced in the Deep South. Southerners, according to Black, are now the largest group in the Republican party, and have produced the top leadership for the party.
The budget impasse provided Clinton the opportunity to take back leadership, said Black. "Trying to govern without control of the White House got the Republicans in real hot water. They didn't believe Clinton would stand firm in the budget battle." Clinton has reclaimed his role as the person who can veto, and the Republicans have garnered an image as ineffective, a situation which has reenergized the Democrats.
The South has played a crucial role in the Republican primary, he said. "South Carolina has always been the place the Republican establishment has gotten behind a single candidate," and that was true this year for Bob Dole, who will most likely carry every southern state except Arkansas in terms of electoral votes. "Clinton will then need to win close to 70 percent of everything else," said Black. The situation right now, he said, "looks like a pretty competitive race."
-- Nancy M. Spitler