Vol. 22, No. 5,514 - The American Reporter - September 7, 2016

by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
Dummerston, Vt.
November 18, 2004
On Native Ground

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DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- We know the map by heart now, the sea of red with the blotches of blue on the edges - the visual representation of President Bush's alleged mandate.

The map has become a political cliche. The lesser minds in the Democratic Party take it as a symbol of their need to start pandering to the so-called "moral values" voter - the person who now joins the "angry white male," the "soccer mom" and the "NASCAR dad" in the pantheon of political stereotyping.

All cliches may have a kernel of truth in them, but the red/blue map doesn't really explain this election and doesn't offer Democrats an effective strategy for the next election.

Maybe it's time to look at America as being not two regions, but 10.

Robert David Sullivan, associate editor of CommonWealth, the magazine of MassINC, a Boston-based non-partisan think tank, came up with a new map that is based on the electoral patterns of the past three decades, along with demographic data from the U.S. Census. You can see the map and the supporting data at http://www.massinc.org.

Sullivan's 10 regions, each of which includes 10 percent of the population, don't neatly follow state boundaries like the red/blue maps because voting blocs aren't necessarily confined to individual states.

Using Sullivan's map, voting patterns become much clearer. He says there are three regions that have been steadfastly Republican since 1964 - Sagebrush (which covers most of the Rocky Mountain states, plus Alaska and a chunk of northern New England), Southern Comfort (which follows the Gulf Coast and reaches up into the Ozarks) and Farm Belt (the upper Plains states, plus most of Ohio and Indiana).

President Bush won all three regions by wide margins in this election. Sagebrush went 60.6-38.1 percent for the President, while he captured Southern Comfort by a 61.3-38 margin and Farm Belt by a 59-40.1 margin.

Two other regions lean Republican but occasionally go Democratic. In this election, Appalachia (which follows that mountain range from central Pennsylvania to Alabama) gave President Bush his biggest margin of support, 61.4-37.8.

The other region, Southern Lowlands (the coastal South of the Atlantic Seaboard with chunks of the Gulf states mixed in) supported the President, but not by much - a 51.5-47.8 margin.

Using the red/blue map, Democrats would automatically write of the South. But the Lowlands has been a competitive region for Democrats. It includes the cities of Charlotte, Raleigh, Atlanta and New Orleans. It is the most educated population in the South, and has the highest percentage of black voters. It went for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, but narrowly rejected Vice President Al Gore in 2000 and Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

The "God, gays and guns" strategy of the GOP isn't a slam dunk here. In this election, Sen. Kerry won Savannah, Ga., Atlanta and two of its suburbs, plus most of the major cities in North Carolina and northern Virginia. Who knows how many more cities a strong Southern candidate in the Carter-Clinton mode would win?

Then there is the one region that decided the election: Big River, which follows the Mississippi Valley from Duluth to Memphis. This region went for Carter in 1976, supported Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, then voted Democratic in the next four elections. Both candidates spent most their time and money in this region, but it was Presdent Bush that eked out a 50.1-49 percent win over Sen. Kerry.

Sen. Kerry certainly did well in the core areas of Democratic support. In Upper Coasts (most of New England and the Pacific Northwest), he won by a 60.3-38.3 margin; his biggest margin of victory.

In Northeast Corridor (the urban areas along the Amtrak route from Bridgeport to Bethesda), Sen. Kerry won by a 59.4-39.5 margin. That sounds fairly solid, but the President apparently gained more support in the suburbs around New York City and cut into Sen. Kerry's margin.

The other two regions won by Sen. Kerry were El Norte (the Miami area and the counties that border Mexico and Hawaii and which were captured by a 54.9-44.1 margin) and Great Lakes (the "Rust Belt" cites of Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago, won by a 56.7-42.3 margin).

Last year Sullivan predicted that if President Bush held on to the five regions he won in 2000 and took a sixth in 2004, he would receive a clear-cut victory. That scenario came to pass, albeit narrowly.

Compared to Gore in 2000, Sen. Kerry apparently didn't lose votes in any region. Instead, the margin of victory was determined by higher turnout, which the President benefited from in eight of the 10 regions.

Looking at Sullivan's map, you can see the rural-urban split of the electorate and how this could effect the 2008 election in the South and Southeast.

I've already covered the demographic possibilities for Democrats in Southern Lowlands. Those same conditions exist in El Norte and a bigger turnout in that fast-growing region may offset GOP support in the low-growth, culturally conservative regions of Farm Belt and Big River.

For a Democrat to win in 2008, he will have to keep the four regions Sen. Kerry won in this election, plus retake Big River and Southern Lowlands - not an impossible task.

The key for Democrats will to consider these truisms as outlined by Sullivan:

  • Suburban voters may dominate most of the 10 regions, but the suburban bloc is too unwieldy to treat as a single entity;
  • No political party can satisfy a majority of the electorate on a long-term basis. The country as a whole is more culturally, economically and religiously diverse than it was just a couple of decades ago, which makes building and maintaining political coalitions harder than ever;
  • The chance of an irreversible trend that will elevate Republicans (or Democrats) to an unassailable position of electoral power is remote. Recent history suggests that the party that wins a huge victory (the Democrats in 1964, 1974 and 1992, the GOP in 1972, 1980 and 1994) will fall victim to a backlash a few years later;
  • The media-created voting blocs like the "security mom" or the "values voter" are almost always ephemeral and rarely have the political power that political journalists say they have;
  • And finally, as Sullivan points out, his map doesn't provide an absolute blueprint for victory. Rather, it shows "in geo-political terms, how each party could win and what such a win might mean, in terms of the shifting tides of demography and public mood."

Based on the information that Sullivan provides, Democrats would be foolish to go chasing after "values voters" in the rural South and Republicans would be equally foolish to think that Northeastern voters move in lock step.

In other words, get beyond the red and blue stereotypes, and a whole color palette of electoral possibilities opens up for the candidate wise enough to seize them.

Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at randyholhut@yahoo.com.

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