Washington — Democrats have elected only two presidents since 1960. One was Lyndon B. Johnson. The other was Jimmy Carter. Both were from the South. The Southern roots of both men were crucial. In modern times, the Democrats have never won the White House without solid Southern support.
That little bit of history tells us something about the 1984 election. Walter Mondale is from Minnesota. Geraldine A. Ferraro is from New York. There's nary a Southern drawl between them.
Since this all-Northern team was nominated, the Democrats have been like a flamingo, standing on only one political leg. Mr. Mondale and Ms. Ferraro figured they would be on solid footing in the North. But they have flown from Georgia to California to Oregon, looking for some place to put the other leg down. They haven't found it.
Rudy Perpich, Democratic governor of Minnesota, Mondale's home state, says he has felt from the beginning that Mondale should have picked a Southern running mate. He so advised the Democratic presidential candidate in a private meeting at the governor's mansion in St. Paul last June.
An aide to Mr. Perpich says the governor was disappointed that Mondale looked to New York for his vice-president. ''The governor felt that if a Democratic nominee can't carry New York on his own, he's in pretty bad shape anyway,'' the aide said. With the election now a little more than 100 hours away, Mondale dipped briefly into Kentucky (a Southern border state) this week for a noontime rally on the City Hall steps at Louisville. And he may go south one more time before next Tuesday - perhaps to Tennessee or Arkansas, aides say. But it is clear that Mondale knows he won't pick much political cotton in Dixie.
Could all this have been different?
From the beginning, Mondale's prospects in the South were not very good. After all, even a Southern peanut farmer like Jimmy Carter managed to carry only one state in the region, his native Georgia, in 1980. Could a Minnesotan like Mondale really expect to do that much better against the same opponent four years later?
Democrats originally rested their Southern hopes on what might be called the ''Texas phenomenon.'' In the last governor's race in Texas, the Democratic Party managed what they hoped was a precedent-setting upset. They did it by registering large numbers of blacks and Hispanics, then going to great lengths to see that, on election day, they all got to the polls.
The Democrats wanted to use the same tactic right across the South. They hoped that leaders like the Rev. Jesse Jackson would be instrumental in exciting the ''rainbow coalition'' and turning several Southern states toward Mondale. In particular, they looked at states Mr. Carter lost by very narrow margins in 1980 : Mississippi, which went to Reagan by only 11,808 votes; South Carolina, Republican by only 11,456 votes; Arkansas, to Reagan by only 5,123 votes.
Instead, Reagan has pulled 5, 10, 20 points ahead in a number of Deep South states. States like Florida and Georgia aren't even close, the pollsters say.
What happened? The Democrats, it appears, failed to foresee Reagan's political blitz in the South, which has made it one of his strongest regions.
Reagan appeals to Southerners because of his calls to patriotism and his support for a strong military. His opposition to abortion and his support for school prayer echo the traditional religious and moral values of many Southerners. And his enthusiastic support for a free-enterprise approach to problems is in tune with the Sunbelt's go-go entrepreneurial spirit.
Further, the Rev. Mr. Jackson's open appeals to Hispanics and blacks to register and support Mondale have alerted thousands of traditionally nonvoting Southern whites that there could be racial implications in the outcome of this election. While Southern whites ordinarily register as Democrats (a holdover from the Civil War and Republican Abraham Lincoln), they have been slowly but steadily gravitating toward the Republican Party ever since the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Even so, Minnesota Governor Perpich says he thinks things might have looked different now had Mondale picked a Southern running mate. A governor, perhaps from Florida, might have worked. Or, if Mondale insisted upon a woman, how about Ann Richards, the Texas state treasurer?
That move would have helped Mondale make a fight of states like Texas and Georgia.
It also would have sent a signal to voters that Mondale was moving toward the center of the party, toward the party's moderates who worry that he may be too liberal on domestic matters and too dovish in international affairs.
It would also have forced Republicans to pour resources into the South to solidify Reagan's support. That, in turn, would have reduced Reagan's prospects in the North, the traditional Democratic base, where the President now leads in nearly every state.
Finally, moving south would have helped Democrats in some of their toughest US Senate races, such as Texas and North Carolina. It's clear that if Reagan manages to carry the South by as much as 20 points he could sweep in some Republicans, such as Sen. Jesse Helms in North Carolina.