Friday, January 02, 2004

Playing with maps
Like many bloggers, I’ve been pulling out my electoral maps and handicapping the next election.

The big topic of conversation so far has been: can the Democrats win without the South. I first became aware of elections during the last days of the old “Solid South.” In those days Northern progressives and Southern racists had a devil’s deal to work together to produce Democratic majorities in congress. The price each side demanded was free reign in their territory. It was never a perfect alliance; cracks were evident from the very beginning. Once the Northern and Western Democrats embraced racial civil rights in the sixties, the only thing that kept the South from bolting immediately was a tendency to reward seniority by reelecting incumbents and the continuing effectiveness of local Democratic organizations. The decline of the Democratic South was slow. For a while, those of us who liked to play with maps could divide the south into “their South” and “our South.”

For a while a similar condition existed in the West. Although in this case the progressive West vanished overnight in 1980 when Church, Magnusen, McGovern, and Mansfield were all ousted in one night. The literature on the decline of the progressive West is nowhere as complete as that on the Solid South. There are a couple good books that need to be written here. But like the South, a clear “our West” and “their West” emerged in the eighties. In fact the trend was more definite in the West. In the South, our South shrank with each election; in the West, the inter-mountain states became more Republican with each election as the coast became more Democratic.

In the rest of the country, the Democrats gained some new strongholds. New England and the Mid-Atlantic states became more dependably Democratic. The upper-Mississippi enclave of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota stayed Democratic.

Although the Democrats lost ground in congress after 1980 they remained competitive. They lost and regained control of the Senate twice and lost the House but stayed within an election of retaking it.

Meanwhile the Republicans have behaved as if God and time are on their side. All they need to do is remain patient and all things will come their way (though even that seems like too much to ask for some). They gain strength and turf in the South with each election. Their lock on the Midwest and Mountain states just gets stronger and they think they can project that lock into Wisconsin and Minnesota in the near future. In some elections they can split New England into “ours” and “theirs.” On the West Coast, demographic trends in Washington and Oregon seem to be going their direction. They can trot out poll after poll that show young people are more conservative than their boomer parents. Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals who once sat out elections in large numbers have become increasingly politicized over the last generation and are overwhelmingly Republican. For twenty years, they have worked on establishing the Grand Old Party among Hispanic communities as firmly as Democrats are established among Blacks, confidently telling themselves that the Hispanic population is growing faster than the Black population.

But things aren’t working as smoothly as the Republicans would like. The fabled Southern Strategy not only gained them the strength that Democrats once boasted, it has gained them the same weaknesses.

Critics of science fiction often point out the self absorbed Americaness of certain plot conventions. One such convention is the space colony that is cursed to suffer the same divisions and crises as Mother Earth. The message of the book is: hatred of the other, even though he be our brother, is the original sin that we cannot escape. The critics sneer at the simplicity of this message and call it a singularly American obsession. That these critics are wrong, arrogant, and just plain annoying poop-heads is the subject for another post. The racial question, as they would have called it at the beginning of the last century, is one of the great inescapable themes of the American plot.

The success of the Southern Strategy has doomed the Hispanic Strategy. The Republicans have taken over the devil’s deal that Democrats once embraced. The old Democratic alliance of Northern progressives and Southern racists was possible in the mid-twentieth century because there was no true national news media and the reach of the central government was weaker. The party could promise one thing in one state and something else in another state and get away with it because the news media wasn’t extensive enough to call them on it and the power of the states was still strong enough to actually do one thing in one state and something else in another state. No longer. The Republicans are trying to replicate the mid-twentieth century Democratic success in a completely different environment. They cannot pander to white supremacists and immigrant bashers on one hand and expect to captivate the Hispanic vote on the other. The Hispanic Strategy has failed. After twenty years, the Republicans can only manage a majority in some Hispanic districts and still lose many.

While the Republicans are smug that Washington and Oregon are no longer safe for Democrats, they have failed to notice that Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and soon Colorado are no longer safe for Republicans. A large section of the West is no longer guaranteed to either party and must now be actively fought for. This is largely because the Hispanic population is growing rapidly in the Southwest and the highly touted white male population is not.

A few weeks ago I handicapped the election and figured the Democratic presidential candid ate could win without the South if we kept Wisconsin and Minnesota and won all of the Mid-Atlantic and steel belt states (except Indiana). That was a pretty big if. Things would be better if we could take a few Southern states. I considered our chances in the Southwest to be something meaningful for ’08 or ’12, but not really significant now. My first targets for a safety margin were Arkansas, West Virginia, Louisiana, and—dare I say it—Florida.

Since I made that first map, Bush handed us Pennsylvania and West Virginia on the steel tariff decision and made Ohio easier to fight for. Today it was revealed that the Ashcroft Justice Department is demanding every hotel, casino, and airline in Las Vegas hand over their personal information for all of their customers during the holiday period. That’s information on about 300,000 without a warrant. Under the current Code Ernie alert, they may have good reasons for this, but they haven’t made that case and I can bet this will get up the nose of a lot of the sagebrush rebel libertarians in Nevada. We may have just won Nevada.

Finally, Florida is not as bad as we may think. The Old Miami Cubans are as temperamental as ever; they don’t like Democrats but they periodically find reasons to want punish Bush. And even if they do rally to his flag, many younger Cubans and other Floridians are tired of their tantrums and might Democratic just to piss them off. Many of the voters who were disenfranchised in 2000 will want to make sure they vote, vote right, and are counted this year. The military absentees will not be as overwhelmingly Republican as last time. And I wonder what the effect of a couple hundred Democrats in Alabama or Georgia moving across the state line might be. Normally, such a suggestion would be a joke, but as close as the 2000 election was, a few cranky Democrats going where their votes really matter could tip the balance.

All in all this should be an entertaining election. No matter what happens, hearts will be broken. I hope mine isn’t one of them.

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