A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

This Is A Little Late

The date for it is 11/17/05. But it is probably still relevant to use it to track trends with. It is a map, on the left, of the Bush approval rating, broken down by state. I wish it was broken out by county as is the Kerry/Bush map on the right, but you can't have everything.

Both maps are incremental, rather than winner-take-all. The approval map gives percentage ranges of approval by state. The Kerry/Bush map gives voting ranges by county up to 70% Republican [all Red] to 70% Democrat [all Blue]. Of all the maps of the 2004 results kited out on the Net, these two are the closest comparison I could find.

What it appears to tell us is that general location of the President's strongest supporters has not materially changed. They dominate in the areas known as the High Plains, stretching northward from Texas to the Dakotas, and the deepest and most isolated parts of the Rocky Mountain West, with a center of gravity around Salt Lake City, UT.

There is also a strong pocket of solid support Republican running from Atlanta to the Mississippi River, as well as one through Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennesee. On the Kerry/Bush map there are strong indications that the Deep South belt is still broken down along racial settlement lines, with deep pockets of blue support, and probably African-American voters, along the Mississippi between Arkansas and Mississippi, as well as a similar stretch of blue approximately where the prime cotton land of pre-Civil War days ran.

A similar pattern can be noted in the High Desert States along the southern rim. The deep Democratic support runs through the Native American reservations, and the traditionally strong Hispanic portions of New Mexico. The reservations in the Black Hills area of South Dakota also show this. Denver and Las Vegas are clearly clocking in as New West Progressive Urban outposts.

The Democrats are unlucky in this regard. If these supporters were better placed, perhaps as many as two of the states of the Deep South would be Democratic strongholds. You can more easily see the distribution of the solidly Democratic areas on the county winner-take-all version of the Kerry/Bush map. One very clear advantage for Republicans, particularly in the Presidential election, is that major Republican territory is far more congruent with state boundaries, and solidly Democratic constituency blocks tend to be divided by those same boundaries.

The implications are clear: at least in the Presidential elections, Democrats must see a heavy turnout of Independents for their candidate, probably close to a 15-20% edge over Republicans in the Independent vote.

This is also, to some degree, the case for Senatorial elections, but here the Democrats have their greatest advantage, as a look at the 70% map above tells us, because the areas where neither Democratic nor Republican support dominates are far more aligned with State boundaries.

Democrats must still court Independents strongly in Senate races, but a smaller pickup, perhaps 5-10% above the Republican score, should be sufficient for a win in any state with both a strong Democratic pocket and a large area of balanced support. This bodes well in the long term for Democratic gains in the Senate.

The party in power typically sees a deterioration in support over time, usually reflected in Presidential approval scores, and the ethics difficulties both at the White House and, increasingly, among Congressional Republicans seem to have accelerated that process. Any Republican Senator who has not built up a strong advantage over his Democratic challenger is probably in some trouble.

The House Races are more problematic for the Democrats, because their strength is so concentrated in urban regions. In most states the House district boundaries must inevitably split urban regions in order to accord to the "one man, one vote" rule for fair districting and also meet standards of relatively equal district size and equivalent shape. There are three reasons why this puts Democrats at a disadvantage.

First, what you cannot see on any of the maps, is that many mid-sized urban areas between both coasts, now have an exurban ring, growing faster in population than the core city, where Republicans predominate. District lines tend to run from the core city through this ring outward, to meet the one man, one vote criterion, diluting Democratic support.

While this is a major disadvantage in House races, it is often strengthening to Democratic politics in the county where the core city lies, as the exurban ring expands beyond that county boundary. Over time, I think this process will eventually see strong Democratic gains in State Legislatures, because the Republicans, who were once concentrated in suburban districts around the edge of one county, get spread over several counties as the exurban ring expands. State Legislatures are usually the "AAA farm team" for politicians on their way up, and controlling them usually offers a party a larger pool of strong running and seasoned candidates.

In any event, Democrats also need to strongly court Independents in the House races--as much or more so than in the Presidential race--because their voting strength is more diluted in them.

Second, the general shape of the districting tends to pull some of the party affiliation out of the races, because the districts reflect the population patterns, but not the sociological patterns of the city and the exurbs. There is far less social interaction across the core city and exurb as there is within each of them. This makes party identification, organizing, fundraising, and get-out-the-partisan-vote efforts more difficult.

When party issues are minimized, Independents, and even some members of the opposite party, lean strongly in the direction of the incumbent. Without strong party line support, it is very difficult for a challenger to knock off an incumbent, particularly one who has served several terms and built up House seniority.

Moreover, party building is a social matter, as the Howard Dean campaign proved. Anything which undercuts party identification in an election, loosens the very social ties which make parties work. Over the long term, however, general Democratic gains in State Legislatures may compensate for this organizational weakness.

Third, Republicans have had the overall advantage in Governorships and State Legislative races for some time now. Consequently, the degree to which any gerrymandering could place a thumb on the scales is the degree to which the thumb went on the Republican scale pan. This is far less than most people believe, I think, though there are naked and horrid examples such as Tom DeLay and Texas, but it does make an overall difference.

The Republican advantage in the states has been largely caused by the Democratic National Committee, as well as by Bill Clinton during his presidency, and by the Democratic Leadership Council. They have all been far too focused on Washington games and not focused enough on local and state party needs. Not very much attention has been paid to conditions at the Demorcatic grassroots since back in the Reagan Administration, and this neglect still shows.

One of the key behind-the-scenes efforts for Democratic politics in the future is Howard Dean's desire and policy to break that cycle of neglect, and rebuild the party from the ground up. You won't see much about it in the media, it's not flashy enough nor concentrated into a specific newsworthy event.

But if you're really sharp, you'll keep an eye out for it. It will make or break the Democratic Party of the future. In terms of covering Howard and the DNC, the media have focused on Dean's blunt and abrasive comments, which Howard does deliberately, playing the Howard Dean media persona to perfection in the interest of getting certain things said, without any blowback to those Democrats who want them to be said, but don't want to say them.

They also focus on Dean's fundraising: how much has he taken in compared with Republicans, how much has he taken in compared with his predecessor, how much of what he has taken in has come from large dollar donors, and so forth. But the story they are missing, right under their noses, is how much is going out and where the money is going to.

So now we come to the Big Ugly--the massive Bush electoral win, a vast sea of red with three pockets of marginalized blue. So what are the prospects in 2008 if the approval rating trends above continue? Not bad. Clearly from the previous maps we can postulate that those areas where Republican and Democratic support are fairly evenly balanced will make the difference, because there the Independent vote is likely to have the most impact.

One of the most crucial statistics to follow in the polling about political issues, therefore, is how close are the Independent numbers to the Democratic numbers:

One measure of the president’s political problems is that by 64 to 32 percent, virtually a two-to-one majority, many people believe that the Bush administration "generally misleads the public on current issues to achieve their own ends." Replies to this question, like public attitudes on many political issues, are highly polarized. A large 68 to 28 percent majority of Republicans believe that "the Bush administration generally provides accurate information regarding current issues." On the other hand, even larger majorities of Democrats (91% to 7%) and Independents (73% to 25%) believe that the information provided is generally misleading.
As we can see, not only are the Democratic and Independent numbers tracking closely, and in the same direction, the Republican responders are tracking precisely in the opposite direction. Liberals in the blogosphere proudly call themselves the "reality based community", and with some good reason if these numbers are any indication. Moreover, questions of overall approval/disapproval of the President are trending in the same direction:

Overall, 36% of Americans say that they approve of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president, 58% disapprove, and 6% are undecided. Among Republicans (33% of adults registered to vote in the survey), 79% approve of the way Bush is handling his job and 15% disapprove. Among Democrats (37% of adults registered to vote in the survey), 10% approve and 86% disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job. Among Independents (30% of adults registered to vote in the survey), 25% approve and 68% disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job as president.

It is particularly important to track questions such as these two, which are, broadly speaking, moral. One of the great difficulties for the Democrats in recent years has been overcoming the Republican sales pitch of themselves as a party of "moral values" with specific the wedge issues of abortion and gay rights. The GOP has come to rely more and more on this as a spendthrift President has utterly abandoned genuinely Conservative policy on any issues but the "morality and values" ones.

Unfortunately for the GOP, as these results indicate, everybody but the Republican faithful are starting to view the current government as a whited sephulchre. It is instructive to look at how fast a slide downward the Bush second term has been:

So where are the Republicans most vulnerable? One state is outstanding--Iowa. Bush took it in 2004 by a relatively small margin. And it is the only state Bush took where the drop in presidential approval has been absolutely precipitous--from the 50%+ of the election to between 31-35% or about five percentage points lower than the national average.

The 70% map makes clear that the state as a whole has a relatively even balance of Republican to Democrat in most the various counties, with a relatively small strongly Democratic pocket. As we have pointed out above, this is the ideal configuration for a Democratic campaign pitched to Independents to have the most impact.

Beyond Iowa, the states that provide the greatest opportunity for Democratic gains are those where the presidential approval rating most closely matches the national average--between 36% and 40%. Several of the states which match this criterion--and also fit our model of strong Democratic pockets with an overall even balance between both parties--are Arkansas, Ohio, Arizona, and New Mexico. A third tier of Democratic opportunity is probably to be found in Colorado and Florida, even though there are very strongly Republican areas in them as well.

The opportunities look relatively good for the Democrats, even if no further scandals, investigations, and indictments are forthcoming--and I doubt very much that such things will stop. The Plame investigation is still ongoing and the Jack Abramoff affair is just really getting up a head of steam. And Iraq is Iraq is Iraq, with no serious security progress in the offing and much of our country gradually souring on the whole adventure.

It will be a very hard row to hoe for Republicans to pull back the Independent vote into their way of thinking. And this has improved Democratic prospects greatly.


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