WASHINGTON, May 5, 2013 ― We are years away from learning who will run in the 2016 race, but we already know one thing for certain ― the Republican nominee will start that campaign trailing in the Electoral College.
The party’s built in Electoral College deficit 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 is beginning to 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 percent 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 in history. 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.
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, across a northern swath from Maine to Minnesota the only state Romney carried was Indiana.
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. In 2012, facing the weakest Democratic competition in decades, the Romney campaign could only compete in states that matched one of the following rules:
1) The state/territory failed to outlaw slavery prior to Lincoln’s election, or
2) It has no major metropolitan areas, or
3) It was Indiana
None of those conditions guarantee that Republicans will be competitive in a particular 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 percent rate. City-dwellers are now solidly Democratic, even in the South. 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 percent 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 in 2012, he won young voters by a 24-point margin.
Obama won both Virginia and North Carolina in 2008, the first time that’s happened since the Dixiecrats joined the GOP. He held Virginia and narrowly lost North Carolina in 2012. As the 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 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. The story in the electoral map will probably get much worse for Republicans before it gets better.
Compare these two maps –
Results in the 2012 Presidential Election, from Dave Leip’s Atlas of US Presidential Elections:
Map of Slave States/Territories in 1860:
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