Joseph Crespino is a professor in the department of history and an expert on the New South. His first book, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution, was published in March 2007.
1) The big story of last week was McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. What do you make of it?
She is a very compelling personality and has already injected a lot of enthusiasm and interest into McCain’s campaign. But Palin is a huge wild card. I thought that the one question that the Dems had not fully answered by the end of their convention was the experience issue, but obviously the McCain camp thought differently because they’ve taken that off the table. It’s hard to know what to make of the news about Palin’s daughter. Nobody really wants to touch it because it’s sad to have the private lives of family members injected into national politics, but how can you hear that new — not to mention the troopergate story — and not wonder who actually vetted this candidate.
2) Do you think the truncation of the RNC as a result of Hurricane Gustav will have any effect on how the rest of the election plays out?
I don’t think any Republicans are remiss about George Bush being unable to speak in prime time Monday night — or the fact that Dick Cheney will not be at the convention. It looks now like Gustav will more or less blow through New Orleans with relatively little impact, and if the Republicans get three full days in, then I think they will be thrilled.
3) Do you think the McCain campaign has to actively distance itself from the Bush administration?
4) What did you make of Obama’s performance at the DNC?
It was less inspiring than others he has given over the course of the campaign but it was, by necessity, more detailed and more combative towards McCain. This could be one of those events that gets rewritten with history. Those pictures of that majestic stadium filled with 80,000-plus people will last forever and — depending of course on how the election goes — will tell their own story about that night. Incidentally, one of the great stats from this past week is that Obama’s crowd in Denver was only about 30,000 or so short of the number of votes that Palin received to win the Alaska governorship.
5) What effect do you think the Clinton’s speeches at the DNC will have on her supporters?
I didn’t buy the post-speech analysis of those who said that Hillary didn’t do enough to make the case for Obama. I thought her speech was the best of the week. It was the funniest, the least clichéd, and she delivered it marvelously. Her magnanimous gesture during the roll call only gilded the lily.
6) Do you think that there is a good historical comparison to be made with the Obama candidacy?
I think Jimmy Carter’s candidacy has many parallels with Obama’s. Both were running as outsiders with relatively little experience. Both followed in the wake of tremendously controversial administrations that were embroiled in deeply divisive wars. Of course, there is no direct comparison to Watergate and the pall it cast over the 1976 election. But Carter and Obama both have had a unique and diverse set of life experiences that seem to resonate with many voters.
7) Do you think the Obama candidacy will change politics in the South, or has it done so already?
Virginia and North Carolina maybe. But I’m skeptical about the idea that in the Deep South Obama can turn out record numbers of African American voters that, combined with white moderates and liberals, can carry states like Georgia, Mississippi or Alabama. I think the Obama campaign’s talk about running a 50-state campaign makes for good rhetoric, and is good strategy because it forces him to move to the middle, which is where presidential campaigns are won. But as we move closer to November, you’re going to see both campaigns putting their resources in states where they have a chance to win — and for Obama I don’t think many of those will be Southern states.
8) Your home state of Mississippi has a surprisingly close Senate election this year between Sen. Roger Wicker and former democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. How do you think that will play out?
Musgrove has a really good shot. He’s had a long career in state politics and was a successful governor. Obama is likely to bring out a historic African American turnout, which is good for all Democrats on the ballot. Wicker will have to do more to win votes on the Gulf Coast, which Trent Lott helped turn into a GOP stronghold.
9) Certainly Virginia has evolved into a swing state since 2004 — how far away do you think the South is from becoming a swing region once again?
The South is such a diverse region that its hard to think of Virginia as being a bellwether. Virginia has produced three of the most exciting and promising Democratic candidates in recent years: Mark Warner, Jim Webb and Tim Kaine. I think Obama will carry Virginia, but if he does I don’t think it has great implications for South Carolina, Mississippi or Alabama.
10) Do you think Georgia’s Senate race, between Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Jim Martin, is worth watching as we get closer to election day?
All Georgians should watch it — sure. Last time I checked Chambliss was up just six points, and there’s a long way to go yet.
— Interview by Editorials Editor Asher Smith
Editor’s note: Smith is a research assistant for Crespino.