Continuing his series on American politics and population, Ted Bromund of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom blogs on Democrat and Republican states' varying fortunes.
In America, the Republicans are the red party and the Democrats claim traditional Tory blue. As I noted in my previous two pieces, while there is no such thing as an enduring demographic advantage in American politics, many red states in America are gaining population and many traditionally blue states are seeing their share shrink.
The reasons for this are complicated and not simply a function of chosen policies – the invention of air conditioning, for example, made the South and the desert West livable and was thus part of the shift of economic activity and population from the industrial and increasingly Democratic Great Lakes region to warmer climates. Nor are states inherently for one party or the other: the South used to be solid for Democrats and is now increasingly so for Republicans. President Obama may think that “Texas has always been a pretty Republican state for, you know, historic reasons,” but those who remember President Lyndon Johnson know differently.
Still, one of the interesting subterranean themes in the current election cycle is the way in which the differing records of the states are shaping the race. The electoral map of U.S. House districts is being redrawn, state by state, a messy and partisan affair. Members of the House retire for many reasons, but one is often the fear of being redistricted into a seat that is dangerously competitive.
When Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, a 16 term veteran and one of the most influential liberals in America, unexpectedly announced his retirement last month, he explicitly blamed redistricting for precipitating the move. It tells you a lot about the prospects of Democrats nationwide that so far 17 House Democrats, as compared with 6 Republicans, have stated that they will not seek re-election.
The Obama campaign has tacitly recognized that these retirements have not come out of nowhere, and that they imply that the President’s path to re-election is narrower than it was in 2008. In November, USA Today found that, while Obama starts with 196 electoral votes from solidly Democratic states, as compared to a Republican nominee with 191, the President’s prospects are clouded by the fact that the swing states have done worse economically, are more pessimistic about the future, and have more motivated Republicans.
Obama’s most likely path to victory gives him a winning edge of a mere two electoral votes, a margin that might well give the U.S. a repeat of 2000, except this time with a Republican taking the edge in the popular vote. In state terms, this means focusing on relatively well-off states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado. In voter terms, it means playing to the white-collar middle class, which is why Obama has recently made much of his newly discovered devotion to President Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism,” and taking environmentalist-pleasing steps like postponing a decision on building a major oil pipeline from Canada.
Of course, states that want to emulate North Dakota, which is in the middle of an energy boom and has an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent, might not think that postponing the pipeline decision is such a clever idea. Chilly North Dakota – where the average temperature in December is 6 degrees Fahrenheit – is evidence enough that geography is not destiny: policies matter too. There are plenty of Republican red states that rank relatively low in the financial network CNBC’s “Top States for Business” Index for 2011. But what is striking is the number of firmly Democratic states that are delivering – and in many cases have delivered for decades – mediocre economic performances, frequently with huge pension bills impending to boot. Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that they’re losing population.
Start with New York, which over the last 45 years has led the country in out-migration, an achievement that coincided with the rapid expansion of social programs and a unionized, highly-paid, public sector workforce in New York City. Or California, which even in the boom times of 2005-07 was losing over 150,000 residents a year. Or Rhode Island, subject of a heart-breaking New York Times article in late October detailing the “decades of drift, denial and inaction” that have left it with a pension system that gives 10 cents of every tax dollar to retired state workers. All three – like Illinois, Connecticut, and Michigan, also cited by the Times – are reliably Democratic.
On the other hand, take Louisiana. For years a Democratic stronghold – it was the fiefdom of Democratic Governor Huey Long – it was described by authoritative analyst Michael Barone as “America’s banana republic . . . with an economy increasingly dependent on businesses typical of picturesque Third World countries.” It still has the lowest in-migration rate in the United States. But under Republican Governor Bobby Jindal – whose family is from the Indian subcontinent – the state has turned right, in both senses. The state’s Democratic Party did not even challenge Jindal’s re-election this fall. He’s cut the budget by 26 percent, and the state’s credit rating has gone up. It is way too soon for excessive optimism, but at least the state is headed in the right direction. On a smaller scale, take the case of Lee Habeeb, a conservative journalist, who in September wrote about how he, a New Jersey Yankee – you’ve got to love a country where a guy named Habeeb can call himself a Yankee and mean it – moved to Mississippi and found, as millions of Americans have discovered, that life is better— and there are more jobs—in the South.
Habeeb tells the story of a gun manufacturing plant owned by Winchester that moved from Illinois to his new home of Oxford, Mississippi, precisely because it could not manufacture competitively in Illinois thanks to the local union. This is a story being repeated all across the United States. The Obama Administration has expended a lot of political capital in trying, and failing, to prevent Boeing from building a new plant in South Carolina, preferring to try to force them to build it in unionized Washington State. It is just this kind of story that will appeal to Obama’s union supporters, while alienating pretty much everyone else. It highlights the problems Obama faces in trying to appeal to a white-collar coalition while at the same time remaining true to his base and allowing the economy to grow.
Dr. Ted R. Bromund is the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He joined Heritage in 2008 after a decade as the Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University, a research and teaching center dedicated to diplomatic, military and strategic history, and grand strategy.