Dems Find Electoral Safety Behind A Wall Of Blue

Over the past 16 years, Democrats have tightened their grip on 18 states worth 248 electoral votes. That doesn’t bode well for Republicans.

National Journal
Jan. 16, 2009, 7 p.m.

State by state, elec­tion by elec­tion, Demo­crats since 1992 have meth­od­ic­ally con­struc­ted the party’s largest and most dur­able Elect­or­al Col­lege base in more than half a cen­tury. Call it the blue wall.

After Barack Obama’s sweep­ing vic­tory in Novem­ber, 18 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia have now voted for the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee in at least the past five pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. The last time Demo­crats won that many states so con­sist­ently was from 1932 to 1948, when Frank­lin Roosevelt and Harry Tru­man won 22 states in five con­sec­ut­ive pres­id­en­tial races.

To­geth­er, D.C. and these 18 con­tem­por­ary Demo­crat­ic strong-holds — run­ning up the East Coast from Mary­land through Maine, through the Up­per Mid­w­est, and down along the Pa­cific Coast — are worth a com­bined 248 Elect­or­al Col­lege votes. That’s more than 90 per­cent of the 270 votes re­quired to win the pres­id­ency. Al­though Re­pub­lic­ans have come close to cap­tur­ing some of these states since the Demo­crat­ic streak began in 1992, par­tic­u­larly when Pres­id­ent Bush won re-elec­tion in 2004, the Demo­crat­ic hold on all of them so­lid­i­fied in 2008. GOP nom­in­ee John Mc­Cain did not fin­ish with­in 10 per­cent­age points of Obama in any of the 18 states (or Wash­ing­ton, D.C.). By Oc­to­ber 2, Mc­Cain had writ­ten off all of those states ex­cept Pennsylvania, which he even­tu­ally lost by more than 600,000 votes.

The Demo­crats’ grip on such a large elect­or­al bloc forced Mc­Cain in­to the situ­ation that Demo­crats typ­ic­ally con­fron­ted while the Re­pub­lic­ans won five of the six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions between 1968 and 1988. Through those years, so many states solidly favored the GOP that ana­lysts in both parties spoke of a Re­pub­lic­an “lock” on the Elect­or­al Col­lege. That left Demo­crats with few op­tions for reach­ing an elect­or­al vote ma­jor­ity and al­lowed Re­pub­lic­ans to con­cen­trate enorm­ous re­sources on the hand­ful of states, prin­cip­ally Ohio, that Demo­crats could not win the White House without.

By some meas­ures, Demo­crats haven’t locked up as many states in their cur­rent run as the GOP did dur­ing the 1970s and 1980s. But the so­lid­i­fy­ing Demo­crat­ic hold on so many states left Mc­Cain with few plaus­ible routes to a ma­jor­ity — a dy­nam­ic sym­bol­ized by his de­cision to be­siege Pennsylvania with events and ad­vert­ising through Oc­to­ber des­pite polls con­sist­ently show­ing him trail­ing by double di­gits in the state.

“Mc­Cain faced, really, the op­pos­ite of the situ­ation the Demo­crats faced in the 1980s,” said Earl Black, a polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist at Rice Uni­versity and co-au­thor of Di­vided Amer­ica: The Fe­ro­cious Power Struggle in Amer­ic­an Polit­ics. “Giv­en the states the Re­pub­lic­ans could count on then, it was just very, very hard for the Demo­crats to get to 270. Now the tables have def­in­itely turned.”

In­deed, from the White House to the state­house, Demo­crats now dom­in­ate these states up and down the bal­lot. Re­pub­lic­ans hold just three of the 36 U.S. Sen­ate seats in these 18 states (that num­ber could climb to four if Norm Cole­man is de­clared the win­ner over Demo­crat Al Franken in Min­nesota). In the House, Demo­crats hold more than 70 per­cent of the seats from these 18 states, a net ad­vant­age of 89. In each cham­ber, the Demo­crats’ ad­vant­age in these states provides their over­all mar­gin of ma­jor­ity.

Demo­crats also con­trol two-thirds of these 18 gov­ernor­ships, every state House cham­ber, and all but two of the state Sen­ates. Cu­mu­lat­ively, Demo­crats hold about two-thirds of all le­gis­lat­ive seats in the 18 states. “It’s like we are build­ing a fort­ress,” says vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant Tad Dev­ine.

How Blue States Are Alike

Al­most all of the states in the blue wall fit a com­mon demo­graph­ic pro­file: af­flu­ent; well-edu­cated; eth­nic­ally and ra­cially di­verse; cul­tur­ally mod­er­ate to lib­er­al; with be­low-av­er­age rates of church at­tend­ance and few­er evan­gel­ic­al Prot­est­ants than the na­tion­al mean. In an era in which each party’s elect­or­al co­ali­tion re­volves more around cul­tur­al at­ti­tudes than eco­nom­ic in­terests, the Demo­crat­ic ad­vant­age in these re­gions rep­res­ents the flip side of the Re­pub­lic­an edge in the cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive South, Plains, and Moun­tain West that keyed Bush’s vic­tor­ies in 2000 and 2004.

Those two tri­umphs demon­strated that the Demo­crats’ hold on these states doesn’t guar­an­tee them the White House. Yet, be­cause of Bush’s in­ab­il­ity to dent the blue wall, he won with two of the nar­row­est Elect­or­al Col­lege ma­jor­it­ies ever. And al­though Obama and oth­er Demo­crats made sub­stan­tial in­roads in cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive states in 2006 and 2008, the Re­pub­lic­ans have been stead­ily los­ing ground in the cul­tur­ally cos­mo­pol­it­an blue states, es­pe­cially since Bush first ap­peared on the na­tion­al bal­lot in 2000.

That daunt­ing trend is likely to sharpen the con­flict between those in the GOP who be­lieve that Re­pub­lic­ans can re­cov­er only by ad­opt­ing a more ag­gress­ive con­ser­vat­ive mes­sage and those who fear that the party’s cur­rent ap­proach writes off too many voters and re­gions. Steve Schmidt, Mc­Cain’s chief strategist, sides with the lat­ter camp. “The party on its cur­rent tra­ject­ory is a shrink­ing party,” Schmidt warns. “It needs to be an ex­pand­ing party… [and] to be a na­tion­al party, it needs to com­pete in states like New Jer­sey, New York, and New Hamp­shire, Pennsylvania and Cali­for­nia…. For the party to come back and grow, it must ap­peal to a broad­er ma­jor­ity of people. That is now the chal­lenge.”

By the nar­row­est meas­ure, the Demo­crats’ cur­rent elect­or­al vote strong­hold is lar­ger than the Re­pub­lic­an base was dur­ing the hey­day of the GOP lock on the Elect­or­al Col­lege. Dur­ing those years, the most com­mand­ing win­ning streak for the GOP came in the elec­tions from 1972 to 1988 — from Richard Nix­on through George H.W. Bush — when it won 24 states five con­sec­ut­ive times. Those states were worth 219 elect­or­al votes by the 1980s. Al­though today’s Demo­crat­ic streak doesn’t in­clude as many states (18), it does in­volve more elect­or­al votes (248, in­clud­ing D.C.).

But dur­ing that 1972 to ‘88 peri­od, Re­pub­lic­ans also won an­oth­er 17 states worth an ad­di­tion­al 196 Elect­or­al Col­lege votes in four of those five elec­tions. Demo­crats have won only an ad­di­tion­al three states in four of the past five elec­tions: Iowa, New Hamp­shire, and New Mex­ico, which are worth a com­bined 16 Elect­or­al Col­lege votes.

For that reas­on, even Demo­crat­ic strategists don’t equate their cur­rent Elect­or­al Col­lege po­s­i­tion with the pre­pon­der­ant Re­pub­lic­an ad­vant­age from Nix­on through the eld­er Bush. Yet the threat to the GOP is ob­vi­ous if it can­not dis­lodge some of the 264 elect­or­al votes that Demo­crats have won in at least four of the past five elec­tions.

“It’s not quite a lock, but maybe it’s a vise that really nar­rows the room for man­euver for Re­pub­lic­ans,” says Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Mark Mell­man. Ral­ph Reed, a Geor­gia-based vet­er­an GOP strategist and act­iv­ist, takes a sim­il­ar view. “The next Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee can’t plan on car­ry­ing… the Rocky Moun­tain States and a sol­id South and then spend $60 mil­lion try­ing to flip Ohio,” said Reed, the former ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Chris­ti­an Co­ali­tion. “You have to ex­pand the map.”

Found­a­tions of the Wall

The Demo­crats’ blue wall con­nects three dis­tinct groups of states. It in­cludes 10 from the Mid-At­lantic and North­east — every state from Mary­land to Maine ex­cept New Hamp­shire. In the Pa­cific West are Cali­for­nia, Hawaii, Ore­gon, and Wash­ing­ton. Four more come from the Mid­w­est: Illinois, Michigan, Min­nesota, and Wis­con­sin. And fi­nally, D.C.

For the GOP, the sil­ver lin­ing is that these states could lose as many as eight con­gres­sion­al seats (and, of course, Elect­or­al Col­lege votes) in the re­ap­por­tion­ment after the 2010 census, ac­cord­ing to cal­cu­la­tions by Pol­idata, an elect­or­al demo­graphy firm. But even so, that would leave Demo­crats with a much lar­ger base of re­li­able states than the GOP has. Re­pub­lic­ans have won 13 states, worth only 93 elect­or­al votes, over the past five elec­tions.

Many of the found­a­tion stones in today’s blue wall were ele­ments of the Re­pub­lic­ans’ earli­er Elect­or­al Col­lege lock; Cali­for­nia, Illinois, New Jer­sey, and Ver­mont, for in­stance, each voted Re­pub­lic­an in all six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions from 1968 to 1988. Those shifts in loy­alty are a re­mind­er that there are no fi­nal vic­tor­ies in Amer­ic­an polit­ics and no per­man­ent geo­graph­ic ad­vant­ages for either party. But these states also testi­fy to the re­align­ment of al­le­gi­ances that has oc­curred over the past two dec­ades as the prin­cip­al glue ce­ment­ing each party’s co­ali­tion has evolved from class in­terests to cul­tur­al at­ti­tudes.

After that geo­graph­ic and ideo­lo­gic­al re-sort­ing, the Demo­crats’ blue wall is now com­posed al­most en­tirely of states that com­bine large num­bers of well-edu­cated, af­flu­ent, and less-re­li­gious whites with sub­stan­tial num­bers of ra­cial and eth­nic minor­it­ies, in­clud­ing siz­able im­mig­rant pop­u­la­tions. Thir­teen of the 18 blue states (plus the Dis­trict of Columbia) rank among the 20 states with the highest pro­por­tion of col­lege gradu­ates, ac­cord­ing to 2007 Census Bur­eau fig­ures. Like­wise, 13 of the states (plus D.C.) rank among the 20 states with the highest me­di­an in­come. Count­ing D.C., 12 of them rank among the 20 states with the highest per­cent­age of for­eign-born res­id­ents.

By con­trast, these states are home to re­l­at­ively few of the re­li­giously de­vout, of­ten evan­gel­ic­al, voters who are the core of the mod­ern GOP co­ali­tion. The massive 2007 U.S. Re­li­gious Land­scape sur­vey con­duc­ted by the Pew For­um on Re­li­gion and Pub­lic Life found that the per­cent­age of res­id­ents who de­scribed re­li­gion as very im­port­ant in their life was lower than the na­tion­al av­er­age in each of these 18 states, ex­cept for the sur­vey’s com­bined sample of Mary­land and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. — and even that res­ult prob­ably rep­res­en­ted the in­flu­ence of heav­ily Demo­crat­ic Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters.

The sur­vey also found that the share of voters who at­ten­ded church at least weekly equaled the na­tion­al av­er­age in just two (Illinois and Pennsylvania) of these 18 states, while fall­ing just short in two oth­ers (Michigan and Min­nesota). The share of res­id­ents who con­sidered them­selves evan­gel­ic­al Prot­est­ants equaled or ex­ceeded the na­tion­al av­er­age in just three of the 18 states; in 13 of them, the share of evan­gel­ic­als was at least 20 per­cent be­low the na­tion­al av­er­age.

At a time when so­cial is­sues such as abor­tion di­vide the parties so starkly, many ana­lysts see those cul­tur­al and re­li­gious trends as key to the Demo­crat­ic grip on these states. “Ba­sic­ally, what they lack are the large num­bers of white Prot­est­ants, es­pe­cially the evan­gel­ic­als, which have been the elect­or­al base [for the GOP] in the South and the Moun­tain Plains,” Black said. “Out­side of those re­gions, the groups you have to com­pete for are much more di­verse, and since the Re­pub­lic­ans haven’t been able to ex­pand, they are really up against it when you have in­creased vot­ing by minor­it­ies.”

Why Re­pub­lic­ans Are Los­ing

Not so long ago, Re­pub­lic­ans were much more com­pet­it­ive across this blue ter­rain. In 1988, George H.W. Bush won 10 of these 18 states, and held Demo­crat Mi­chael Duka­kis to less than 52 per­cent in five oth­ers. At that point, Re­pub­lic­ans held 14 of these states’ 36 Sen­ate seats and 86 of their 219 House seats — in each case a much lar­ger per­cent­age than the GOP holds today.

Since then, in the five pres­id­en­tial elec­tions across these 18 states, the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee has fin­ished with­in 5 per­cent­age points of the Demo­crat just 10 times out of a pos­sible 90 res­ults. In blue-wall states as far-flung as Con­necti­c­ut and New York, Michigan and Cali­for­nia, Obama won a lar­ger share of the vote than did all but one Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee since 1932. And throughout these states Demo­crats have enorm­ously widened their lead in con­gres­sion­al and state le­gis­lat­ive seats. “The Re­pub­lic­an brand is, across the board, go­ing bad in these states,” says Schmidt, the Mc­Cain strategist.

What changed? Two factors seem most im­port­ant.

One is in­creas­ing ra­cial di­versity. Since 1988, ac­cord­ing to net­work exit polls, the share of the vote cast by whites has de­clined in al­most all of these states. That trend has been es­pe­cially pro­nounced in many of the key states that switched sides from the Re­pub­lic­an lock to the Demo­crat­ic wall. In Cali­for­nia, from 1988 through 2008, the white share of the vote fell from 79 per­cent to 63 per­cent; in New Jer­sey, from 87 per­cent to 73 per­cent; in Con­necti­c­ut, from 94 per­cent to 78 per­cent; and in Illinois, from 90 per­cent to 73 per­cent. The off­set­ting in­crease has come among Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, Asi­ans, and His­pan­ics, all groups that are now vot­ing over­whelm­ingly Demo­crat­ic.

The oth­er big change has been the grow­ing Demo­crat­ic strength among white voters with col­lege or post­gradu­ate de­grees. In 1988, large, af­flu­ent, white-col­lar sub­urb­an counties such as Mont­gomery and Delaware in Pennsylvania, Ber­gen in New Jer­sey, Oak­land in Michigan, and Fair­field in Con­necti­c­ut, provided huge mar­gins for George H.W. Bush.

But since Bill Clin­ton’s two elec­tions, Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ees have routinely car­ried all of those counties and such demo­graph­ic­ally sim­il­ar ones as Santa Clara and Con­tra Costa in Cali­for­nia, and Mont­gomery in Mary­land. Exit polls this year found that Obama won white voters with a col­lege edu­ca­tion in each of these 18 states ex­cept Michigan and, iron­ic­ally, Illinois, where he tied Mc­Cain among them. As these states move to­ward a postin­dus­tri­al eco­nomy, col­lege-edu­cated voters con­sti­tute a lar­ger share of the vote than they did 20 years ago in most of them, and a sub­stan­tially lar­ger share in some.

The Demo­crat­ic gains in these up­scale com­munit­ies have par­alleled the GOP’s tight­en­ing iden­ti­fic­a­tion since the early 1990s with a staunch South­ern-flavored con­ser­vat­ism, par­tic­u­larly on cul­tur­al is­sues. Since the GOP takeover of Con­gress in 1994, the party has been in­creas­ingly defined by un­abashed South­ern con­ser­vat­ives, start­ing with con­gres­sion­al lead­ers such as Newt Gin­grich, Trent Lott, and Tom DeLay, and con­tinu­ing, of course, with Pres­id­ent Bush. Al­most uni­ver­sally, Demo­crats be­lieve they are ad­van­cing in these leafy sub­urbs largely be­cause voters there have re­coiled from that defin­i­tion of the GOP.

“It’s the flip side of the al­li­ance with evan­gel­ic­al Chris­ti­ans in the South that has cre­ated so­cial po­s­i­tions that a lot of those af­flu­ent, edu­cated voters just do not agree with,” says Bill Car­rick, a vet­er­an Los Angeles-based Demo­crat­ic strategist.

Closely re­lated, but dis­tinct, oth­er ana­lysts say, is the per­cep­tion in many of these places that the GOP el­ev­ates re­li­gion over sci­ence (on is­sues such as stem-cell re­search or the teach­ing of evol­u­tion) and prizes homespun “com­mon sense” over ad­vanced edu­ca­tion — an in­clin­a­tion sym­bol­ized by the party’s fre­quent por­tray­al of small towns like Sarah Pal­in’s Wasilla, Alaska, as the “real Amer­ica.”

“The anti-in­tel­lec­tu­al side of the Re­pub­lic­an Party is of­fens­ive to people who think what makes them dif­fer­ent is they went to school and that they are smart,” said Kier­an Ma­honey, a vet­er­an Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant in New York. “If we are go­ing to glory in the no­tion that we are not think­ing this through, don’t be sur­prised if we of­fend those who are think­ing it through.”

Ma­honey be­lieves that uni­fied Demo­crat­ic con­trol in Wash­ing­ton will provide Re­pub­lic­ans an op­por­tun­ity to re­build in these blue states. “The Demo­crat­ic Party with its Mo­ve­On.org, the uni­on guys, all the pent-up de­mand for lar­ger act­iv­ist gov­ern­ment that in­trudes in­to the eco­nomy [is] go­ing to of­fend the same vot­ing blocs that the Re­pub­lic­an Party has of­fen­ded,” he said.

But to seize that op­por­tun­ity, Ma­honey ar­gued, Re­pub­lic­ans will need to move away from a “mor­al­ist” defin­i­tion of con­ser­vat­ism to­ward a more “liber­tari­an” ar­gu­ment that links per­son­al free­dom and small gov­ern­ment. That’s the for­mula, he says, that al­lowed cent­rist, pro-abor­tion-rights Re­pub­lic­ans such as George Pa­taki, Wil­li­am Weld, and Arnold Schwar­zeneg­ger to win gov­ernor­ships in these states even as Demo­crats dom­in­ated the fed­er­al con­tests.

Schmidt, al­though he ran a cam­paign for Mc­Cain that ul­ti­mately saw vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee Pal­in stress cul­tur­ally po­lar­iz­ing themes, takes a sim­il­ar view. Al­though the party will re­main over­whelm­ingly “pro-life,” he says, the GOP will not re­store its com­pet­it­ive­ness in these states without “tol­er­ance for a type of con­ser­vat­ism and Re­pub­lic­an­ism that is closer to the Brit­ish Con­ser­vat­ive Party: pro-en­vir­on­ment, com­pet­ent in gov­ern­ment, so­cially tol­er­ant.”

Demo­crats tend to view the bar­ri­ers fa­cing Re­pub­lic­ans in these states, es­pe­cially on so­cial is­sues, as vir­tu­ally in­sur­mount­able in the near term. Al­though “there is no such thing as a lock,” Mell­man says, ab­sent a “big ex­tern­al shock” that re­shapes the polit­ic­al de­bate, “it will be very dif­fi­cult if not im­possible for a clear cul­tur­al con­ser­vat­ive to win these places.”

Learn­ing From Obama?

Ral­ph Reed, re­flect­ing a com­mon view among re­li­gious con­ser­vat­ives, says that Re­pub­lic­ans can re­gain ground in these blue states without mod­er­at­ing their views on so­cial is­sues. The key, he says, is em­bed­ding those views in a com­pel­ling, lar­ger agenda at­tract­ive to voters who may not agree with the party’s cul­tur­al pri­or­it­ies. As proof that it can be done, Reed cites an un­usu­al ex­ample: Obama’s suc­cess at cap­tur­ing states such as Vir­gin­ia, Col­or­ado, and North Car­o­lina that were pre­vi­ously con­sidered in­hos­pit­able to cul­tur­al lib­er­als.

“I re­ject the idea that you have to trim your sails in terms of the core prin­ciples of your party in or­der to ap­peal every­where,” Reed said. “And I think Ex­hib­it A of that is Obama. He ran ad­vert­ising [ad­voc­at­ing] the largest tax in­crease of any Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee in my life­time, and a with­draw­al from Ir­aq, and a very lib­er­al po­s­i­tion on the mor­al and so­cial is­sues. But he com­peted every­where, and he found ways to sig­nal em­pathy [to con­ser­vat­ives]. A lot of this is a can­did­ate who can build bridges to people who don’t think you are sym­path­et­ic.”

But Obama’s suc­cess in Col­or­ado and Vir­gin­ia prob­ably owes less to con­vert­ing con­ser­vat­ives than to the in­flu­ence on those states of the same elect­or­al trends that flipped many of the blue-wall states away from the GOP in the 1990s. Key among those changes are an in­creas­ing num­ber of minor­it­ies and a move­ment to­ward the Demo­crats among cul­tur­ally mod­er­ate-to-lib­er­al col­lege-edu­cated whites.

If any­thing, this ex­plan­a­tion for Obama’s break­throughs un­der­scores the mag­nitude of the choices fa­cing the GOP, be­cause it presents Re­pub­lic­ans with the risk that the same cul­tur­al and demo­graph­ic dy­nam­ics that have so­lid­i­fied the Demo­crat­ic hold on the 18 blue-wall states could in­creas­ingly shift these battle­ground states in­to the Demo­crats’ or­bit. Meas­ured on such yard­sticks as in­come, edu­ca­tion, and res­id­ents born abroad, Col­or­ado and Vir­gin­ia (and, to a less­er ex­tent, North Car­o­lina) now re­semble the blue states more than they do the typ­ic­al Re­pub­lic­an bas­tions in the South or the Great Plains. If Re­pub­lic­ans can­not crack the code with minor­ity and well-edu­cated, so­cially mod­er­ate white voters, states such as Col­or­ado or Vir­gin­ia that are now tee­ter­ing between the parties even­tu­ally could be­come new bricks atop the Demo­crats’ blue wall.

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