Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Road Ahead

Right after the election, I posted that a new regionalism had taken shape. I still think that I was right to say that, although I have changed my mind as to the form it is taking.

To illustrate the point, let's take a look at a couple of maps, courtesy of the fine folks at Outside the Beltway. These maps display the results of the 2008 Presidential race, county-by-county. The first displays a winner-takes-all picture, the second, shaded by margin of victory.

To a first approximation, it sure looks like the "blue" areas correlate to where the largest cities are. To verify this, let's see if we can find a map of the lower 48 states, shaded by population density. Here, we see one from NASA's Image of the Day from back in October 2006. The information is usefully recent:

The correlation is fairly strong. It's not exact, of course, but will serve to illustrate my major point: the modern Democratic party is aligned strongly with urban voters, and the modern Republican party is aligned strongly with rural voters. This obtains whether we're talking about the Northeast, the Southwest, or points in-between. Look at Texas, for example. It's a fairly strongly Republican state, overall. But the urban counties surrounding Dallas, Houston, Austin and Lubbock all went Democratic.

What does this mean going forward? Possibly, it means that candidates for national office need to think less about swing states than about swing counties. Within a given state, the margin of victory will come not from the cities or the country, but from the border between them: the suburban voters. The only remaining regional question is, how strongly do suburbanites identify with the nearest big city? In the Northeast, a lot of people who nominally live "in the country" actually work in the city, and the electoral results show that. In Texas and the Southwest, a lot of suburbanites identify with the country, and the electoral results sometimes show that. Nevertheless, going forward, the suburbs are the battlegrounds. Who wins the suburbs, wins the states; who wins the states wins the White House.

The question is, which parties actually realize this? Let's have a look at the results of 2008 compared to 2004, as compiled by the New York Times:

What shows here is a broad sea of discontent, with most counties voting more Democratic than they did in 2004. Except, that is, for a swatch of the South running roughly from Appalachia through eastern Oklahoma. Here, McCain actually outperformed Bush's 2004 results.

Virtually no one asks why, because the answer is fairly obvious. In the Klan Belt, there are a lot of people who'd vote for Satan before they'd vote for a black man for any public office. The question then becomes, will the Republican party let this sort of thing trump their national interest?

The story appears to have blown over for the moment, but the Republican National Committee's response to Chip Saltsman's Christmas Card is going to be an important signal for the party's direction going forward. It's not as if Saltsman is just some schlub. He was Senior Political Advisor to Bill Frist while Frist was Senate Majority Leader, and then he was Mike Huckabee's campaign manager. He is currently a candidate for the Chairmanship of the Republican National Committee.

Geez, where do I begin? I can't imagine the Republicans hiring him now. Imagine the interview: "Critical failure of judgement? Tasteless lyrics bordering on racist? Why, those are just the qualities we're looking for in a Chairman here at the RNC! Welcome aboard, sir!" The state of his career is a fair bellweather for where the Republicans are headed. Surely, his RNC candidacy is toast. But if his career well and truly sinks without a trace, that's a sign that the RNC and Republicans in general feel the need to purge his ilk from their ranks. But, if he still holds important advisory posts going forward, if he's a major mover and shaker going into the 2010 election cycle, that tells a different tale.

Remember Item Six. Are the Republicans going to double down on the crazy? Or are they going to make a genuine effort to figure out the real reasons why they lost? Right now the craziness seems to be winning. If Rush Limbaugh chortling about "Barack the Magic Negro" is the best they can come up with, then it's liable to be a sad and sorry Republican Party that goes into the 2010 elections.

What a sad, sad end for the movement that William F. Buckley built. Whether you agreed with him or not, you always had to take him seriously. These clowns, not so much. It's good that he didn't live long enough to see this.

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