Are The Yellow Dog Democrat Counties Gone Forever?

Looking at the county returns from the 2008 Presidential election, Obama made impressive gains almost across the board.  The one exception to the trend, as we’re all aware of around here, is in the Yellow Dog Democrat counties of the southern Midwest, Deep South, and Appalachia.  While these counties have been trending against the Democrats for decades, and particularly since the Clinton years, the Yellow Dog realignment into the waiting hands of Republicans was almost 100% completed in the 2008 election.  The question is….can we ever get them back in national elections?

Not everyone’s definition of Yellow Dog Democrats is the same, but I usually classify them as the conservative Democrats of the three aforementioned regions (Appalachia, southern Midwest, Deep South) in majority-white jurisdictions.  On the surface, Obama’s 29 county victories in Mississippi suggest a continued presence of Yellow Dog-ism, but nearly all of those 29 counties are majority-black.  One of the last-standing Mississippi counties that could be generously classified as a Yellow Dog County is Benton County in the north-central part of the state, and that was the only 2004 Kerry county in the state to swing to Bush this year.

As a rule, the smaller the minority population in a given county, the more likely they were to see a seismic movement towards McCain this year compared to past Presidential elections.  The Mondale-McCain counties chart on this website outlined this realignment quite effectively, but the role race played in harming Democratic chances in many of these counties is likely quite substantial.  Had Hillary Clinton been the nominee, it’s probably a safe bet that the Mondale-McCain county list would have fewer entries, particularly in states like Kentucky and Tennessee.

Kerry took a substantial hit in the Yellow Dog Democrat counties four years ago as well, but I’m struck how many of the now seemingly long-gone Yellow Dog counties were still onboard for Al Gore, even outside of Gore’s home state of Tennessee.  There were two counties in southern Illinois (Franklin and Perry) where Gore was victorious but favorite son Barack Obama couldn’t even pull out a win.  The same is true in a handful of counties in western Kentucky and northern Alabama.  It’s hard to imagine that any high-profile national Democratic figure could emerge victorious in 2008 in Gore counties like Ballard County, Kentucky; Jackson County, Alabama; and Hughes County, Oklahoma.

It strikes me that the significance of so many of these counties holding on through the 2000 Gore v. Bush election can be at least somewhat connected to that election being more senior-centric than any campaign in recent memory (“putting Social Security in an ironclad lock box”).  It can be safely assumed that it was the oldsters in these mostly rural Yellow Dog counties who were most likely to stick with Gore in 2000 and who have dying off in years since.  Those still alive are statistically the demographic most likely to be repelled by the prospect of an African-American for President.  But in some cases, the shift away from Obama was so dramatic this year that it leaves me wondering if the Democratic proclivity in the Yellow Dog counties has been completely abandoned by younger generations of residents.  Are the allegedly more tolerant 20-somethings of Letcher County, Kentucky, just as likely to forfeit their Democratic heritage as their grandfathers over race?  Or has the Democratic heritage been diluted over the generations to the point that the 20-somethings have no emotional or familial ties to the Democratic Party.

Interestingly, at the time I thought Gore’s 2000 showing represented the Democratic trough as it pertained to the Yellow Dog regions, at least in northern Appalachain Clinton strongholds like eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.  Certainly, I thought, the squishy Gore margins in this region merely represented a one-time flirtation with a “compassionate conservative” that was produced by Clinton exhaustion.  I felt the same about the Upper Midwest after Gore’s soft showing in that region, and went into 2004 expecting Kerry to vastly overperform Gore everywhere from Aberdeen, South Dakota, to Decatur, Illinois, to Steubenville, Ohio.  I ended up being stunned to see many of these areas actually got redder in 2004.  And then of course in 2008, the trajectory of the two pro-Bush regions split.  Obama saw considerable gains in the Upper Midwest and Corn Belt while the Yellow Dog strongholds continued their drift towards Republicans.

With that in mind, looking forward to 2012, the question begs itself….can these people be won over?  If Obama gets as high of marks for governing in the next four years as he has for organizing his campaign and transition team in the last two, will the voters of Hope, Arkansas, be less afraid than they are now of “blacks taking over the levers of power in the country” after attaining the White House?  If the insane fears of Obama’s “Muslim background” are proven fruitless in the next four years, will Al Gore’s former neighbors in Carthage, Tennessee, resume their long-standing tradition of instinctively voting Democratic in future election cycles?  If serious efforts are undertaken (and ideally delivered) to reverse the decline of the lower-middle class, will the voters of Weirton, West Virginia, reconnect with the Democratic Party they were so solidly aligned with in the past century?  Or is the drift towards Republicanism in these areas irreversible for the foreseeable future now matter how well Obama performs in office?