After predicting the outcomes of the 2008 and 2012 Presidential Elections with remarkable foresight and clarity, Nate Silver has examined the “Blue Wall.” His conclusion – it does not exist.
Back in November I argued that the 2014 Election results revealed a disturbing trend. The Republican Party’s power was becoming geographically concentrated in a way that would render it impossible to influence future Presidential politics. Republicans’ biggest electoral wave in modern history obscured a nightmare. The party’s candidates and policies had solidly failed in a block of states I described as the “Blue Wall.”
With Virginia included in that category, as I argued it should be, the 2014 results revealed a geographic block of nearly impenetrable Democratic support so large as to shut Republicans out of national competitiveness for the near future. There are too many Californias and New Yorks, places where a Republican nominee has no hope of being competitive, for the party’s increasingly powerful influence in Texas, Mississippi and other solidly “red” states to matter nationally.
Silver dismisses this notion out of hand. His conclusion is founded on two arguments. First, past results do not predict future results. As an example, Silver points to a block of states that, up to the 1992 Election, had been a reliable bastion of Republican support. Clinton won nine of them. Four of them have been solidly Democratic ever since.
His second argument is that the Electoral College cannot necessarily be counted on to magnify Democratic electoral strength as some have claimed. To summarize, he explains “when commentators talk about the Democrats’ “blue wall,” all they’re really pointing out is that Democrats have had a pretty good run in presidential elections lately.”
As usual with Silver, his reasoning is airtight. Trouble comes from the straw men toward which that reasoning is directed. Evidence for the Blue Wall can be found in polling trends. However, the foundations for the Blue Wall’s reasoning are built not from polling assumptions, but from policy, demographics, and institutional factors. This description of New Hampshire’s slide behind the Blue Wall is a nice summary of the logic behind the assessment.
Having written a pretty sharply worded piece after the 2012 election about the dangers of betting against Nate Silver, I find myself, at least for the time being, in that very unhappy position myself. Your humble author is not enthusiastic about becoming the “unskewed polls” idiot of this election cycle. This development requires a careful rethink. Much to my discomfort, a closer look at the assumptions behind the Blue Wall leave me more convinced that Silver has it wrong.
Silver has developed the best strategy of our time for analyzing polling data. Consulting polls today for the 2016 Election renders few useful insights about the outcome. There are some interesting hints, like Clinton’s continued and consistent strength against every potential GOP candidate, but at this date voters are too disengaged for these numbers to have meaning. All you can really gauge at this point is name recognition and a shadow outline of support. On Silver’s home turf of polling data, his conclusion that Clinton has roughly a 50-50 shot of winning is mathematically and logically correct.
Now, consider a thought exercise.
What combination of candidate, policy, and wider political conditions would be needed in order for any remotely credible winner of the 2016 Republican primary to win California in the General Election? It is far too early to predict the outcome of the election in California just from polling data. Nevertheless, the Republican nominee, whoever it may be, is not even going to travel to California except to raise money. See the problem?
Why is California out of reach to a Republican Presidential nominee? As explained in a previous piece, the flight of the Dixiecrats into a largely empty Republican grassroots political structure across the South in the last third of the 20th Century has altered the calculus of politics nationally. Republicans are now trapped beneath the weight of a Neo-Confederate backlash. The party is producing policies that are radically popular across a poorly populated stretch of the country. Those same policies are political suicide outside the rural Midwest and the Jim Crow belt.
In the country’s wealthiest, more populous regions with the bulk of Electoral College votes, that agenda is a non-starter. There aren’t a lot of Southern Baptists in Minnesota and Oregon. A political agenda freighted with appeals to white nationalism can no longer compete nationally. Under present political alignments, no Republican Presidential nominee can establish enough distance from Ted Cruz to win in a Blue State, even if it is his home state.
As the party’s Dixie burden grows heavier, its alienation from the rest of the country grows with it. Republicans were jubilant about the state-level gains in 2014, but they missed the wider picture. That election was simply the end of a flip from one-party rule under Democrats to one-party rule under Republicans. The results nationwide revealed that the Republican win was a local and regional phenomenon, with serious negative consequences elsewhere.
But wait, Republicans also racked up wins in Governor’s races in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland? Every one of those wins came from a Republican who ran away from the party. More detail on blue-state ticket-splitting here, but in short, there’s a good reason that Walker and Christie show no signs of being able to carry their respective home states if they manage to become the nominee. A bunch of people who think forced ultra-sounds are a “cool thing” and climate change is a hoax are not going to flip Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire next year.
Look at California, Illinois, or New York, states won by George H.W. Bush as recently as 1988, for an example of GOP’s worsening demographic crisis. Take the political, tactical, and institutional reasoning behind our inability to compete in those states, and apply that template across the country on a state-by-state basis. What you get from that analysis is the Blue Wall.
We can already logically expect that in 2016 we are going to get an electorate that is less white, less evangelical, less afraid of minorities, and less rural than in each previous Presidential election. Is there some logical reason to expect, under those conditions, that this electorate will be more favorably disposed to the person emerging from the 2016 Republican campaign than to Mitt Romney or John McCain? That’s the logic behind the Blue Wall. Perform the Electoral math based on those political and demographic assumptions and suddenly 2016 ceases to be close at all.
Silver, as a mathematician, may not have “a dog in that fight” as related to policy analysis. As a watcher of politics and history, I’m in no position to question (or frankly even understand) Silver’s math. Right now, the analysis I’m doing is the only one for which we have any reliable data. I’m stuck on the wrong end of an argument with Nate Silver where I’ll remain until next summer when the polls start to shed some light. Wish me luck. I’m going to need it.