The Republican Party’s most electable candidate starts this race trailing Obama by only a few points in national polls. That seems like a promising development until you look at the map. At this point the most likely outcome of the 2012 Presidential race is a modest win by Obama in terms of the popular vote, but an Electoral College landslide virtually identical to 2008.
The apparent contradiction between a close race for the popular vote and a looming Electoral College rout rises from a Republican strategy to concentrate our appeal in an ever-narrowing swath of the country. The map tells a tale of alarming geographic polarization that over time could threaten the party’s national relevance.
This regionalism is a fairly recent development. Only 28 years ago Ronald Reagan swept 49 states and won 57% of the popular vote on the strength of a broad coalition that spanned traditional party boundaries. When that coalition began to break it led to Republican losses in some unprecedented places.
In ’92 we lost previously reliable Republican states like Illinois, California, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Michigan. That was the first year we lost intensely conservative Delaware County, home to Philadelphia’s prestigious Mainline. We’ve never again been competitive in those places.
In ’96 we lost the Wall Street bedroom counties in Connecticut. In 2008, the national Republican ticket lost Chicago’s collar counties for the first time since the parties took their modern shape. That year we even lost the old Goldwater/Reagan base around San Diego and McCain carried Orange County by only 30,000 votes. In 2011, Democrats won local leadership of suburban Philadelphia’s Montgomery County for the first time ever. None of those classic Republican strongholds are likely to support the party’s Presidential nominee again anytime in the near future.
There are numerous states that have elected Republican Governors, Senators, even legislative majorities, in which the Republican Presidential ticket is no longer competitive. Republicans remain a force at the state and local level across the Northeast and the Midwest. Nevertheless, from Maine to Minnesota the only state in which Romney has ever held a lead is Indiana. If Romney takes two states in those regions it will be an achievement.
In a single generation we have abandoned our overwhelming center-right majority and replaced it at the national level with a bitter, racially-tinged fortress strategy. Facing the weakest Democratic competition in decades, this year’s Republican nominee has a chance to win your state if:
1) It failed to outlaw slavery prior to the Civil War, or
2) It has no major metropolitan areas, or
3) You live in Ohio and the vote suppression campaign works
None of those conditions guarantee that Republicans will be competitive in your state. Those conditions only describe the limited subset of states where the modern GOP can try to rally voters to the national ticket.
Instead of competing nationally, the GOP is embracing a strategy of extreme ideological rigidity in the areas where its message still resonates. What we have lost in breadth we are compensating for in intensity.
The national GOP has set itself firmly against every dominant demographic trend. America is becoming more ethnically diverse, less religious, and more urban in an unrelenting march. Hispanics are the country’s fastest growing ethnic group. Two elections ago George Bush carried almost half of the Hispanic vote. Now they support Obama at a whopping 70% rate. City-dwellers are solidly Democratic. Obama holds more than a 10-point lead among women.
The future looks even worse as young people are trending Democratic at rates not seen in decades. In 1980, Reagan carried 60% of young voters. As recently as 1992 more voters under thirty identified as Republicans than Democrats. In 2008 two-thirds of young people voted for Obama, and he retains a 26-point lead going into this election.
Obama won both Virginia and North Carolina in 2008, the first time that’s happened since the Dixiecrats joined the GOP. As the Neo-Confederate Republican firewalls in Texas and Georgia grow more urban and Hispanic, those critical anchor states are showing signs of Republican weakness.
There is a dim glimmer on the horizon. Republicans remain a serious force in many states that vote reliably Democratic at the top of the ticket. Like a living time capsule, Republicans there generally preserve the popular Hamiltonian values the party represented prior to the Great Dixiecratic wave. Their power is dampened at home by the depressing Neo-Confederate drumbeat from the national party, but their appeal and their organization is intact.
Blue state Republicans might at some point muster the will to push back publicly against the national party’s bizarre extremes. If that happens, we could see a relatively speedy revival of the center-right coalition that two decades ago appeared destined to dominate America’s future. Such a revival probably won’t happen before the party experiences a truly humiliating collapse at the national level – which is not likely this fall. The story in the electoral map will probably get much worse for Republicans before it gets better.
For your consideration, two maps –
The electoral map from 2012:
The map of states and territories that allowed slavery at the start of the Civil War: