Thursday, November 6, 2008

Hold-Recapture-Add: Making Geopolitics Work

As I examine some of the underlying truths of President-elect Obama's epic campaign and history-shattering election victory, one of my conclusions is that America has experienced a political realignment of sorts.

Even a brief review of the voting patterns in Tuesday's election reveals some very interesting details about the changing political landscape of the nation and of the two major political parties. When you look at this year's electoral map, one thing jumps out at you immediately. There is a geographic coherence to the 2008 election results. A quick comparison to the electoral maps from 2000 and 2004 confirms this idea. 

It seems that political allegiance in the US is increasingly linked to geographical location. This trend appears stronger than at any time since the run-up to the Civil War or, at least, since the period immediately following Reconstruction. Even in a time of great economic stress and two foreign wars, America's political fault-lines more and more follow geographical boundaries.  

It seems clear that the Obama campaign leveraged this geopolitical reality in order to put together a decisive electoral college victory. I call their strategy the 'hold-recapture-add' approach. It was an elegant strategy that maximized the use of advertising dollars and other resources while allowing the campaign to get full benefit of the increasing regionalization of American politics.

The idea was simple: Hold the Kerry 2004 states, recapture the two Gore states (IA and NM) that Kerry did not win four years ago and add as many other states with similar demographics and good prospects as practical. That turned out to be seven: OH, IN, VA, NC, FL, CO and NV. Note that, save for FL, all of the Obama add-ons physically adjoin the Gore-Kerry base. Is it a mere coincidence that these states are all contiguous? I don't think so. 

Let's examine how this geopolitical strategy played out in practice.

A closer look at Obama's victory margins by state tells the tale. In every Gore-Kerry state, Obama equalled or improved on his predecessors' popular vote performance. The Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, already deep blue, got even bluer. The sole 'barely-blue' exception in this region, New Hampshire, narrowly lost by Gore and barely won by Kerry, gave Obama a double-digit victory this time around. Otherwise, already large Democratic margins improved substantially in places like New York, New Jersey and Vermont. Most importantly, Obama far outpaced the previous Democratic tickets' margins in Pennsylvania, thwarting the McCain campaign's quixotic efforts to poach the Keystone State. 

The Midwestern states also showed dramatic increases in the Democratic nominee's share of the popular vote. Wisconsin, narrowly carried by the Democrats in 2000 and 2004, gave Obama a crushing 13 point victory over John McCain. The story was much the same in MI and MN. Iowa, which Gore won by a whisker in 2000 and Kerry lost by another whisker in 2004, provided Obama with an easy 9-point victory. 

Most importantly, Ohio and Indiana (sandwiched between Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania) switched from the GOP column to the Democratic candidate. This shift gave Obama a complete run of the Midwest except for Missouri, where an extremely tight race is still not officially settled. For the moment, it appears McCain may eke out a very tiny win in Missouri. (Much of Missouri is, after all, an extension of the Upper South. See below for a detailed discussion of that region.)

The Great Plains and northern Rockies remained firmly Republican, although it's noteworthy that Obama did better than either Gore or Kerry in every one of these states (ND, SD, NE, KS, MT, WY, UT and ID). Some efforts were made in this region by the Obama campaign, but any gains here have to be attributed to DNC Chair Howard Dean's brilliant fifty-state strategy which put the Republicans on defense even where the Democratic ticket had few prospects.

Further west, Obama easily held the Pacific coast states (WA, OR, CA) and Hawaii. Once again, his popular vote margins in each of these four states easily outdistanced both Gore and Kerry. To his list of far-west wins, Obama added California's eastern neighbor, Nevada, a state that neither Gore nor Kerry had won. Remarkably, Obama won the Silver State by 14 percentage points! In the far northwest Pacific, Alaska, with its Governor on the GOP ticket, remained very red but even there Obama did noticeably better than Gore or Kerry.

In the Southwest, Obama continued his 'hold-recapture-add' strategy. Retaking the Democratic base state of New Mexico (which Gore had won by the tiniest of margins in 2000), Obama expanded into the adjoining state of Colorado. In New Mexico, he won by an astounding 15 point margin and easily carried CO with a sound 8 point lead.  Interestingly, even in John McCain's home state of Arizona, Obama got as large a share of the popular vote as either Kerry or Gore had been able to do in the previous two cycles.
In the deep South, things get very interesting. Obama managed to "re-capture" Florida, lost soundly by Kerry in 2004 and (arguably) 'won' narrowly by Gore in the infamous 2000 debacle. Other than a rather loose geographic border with GA and AL, there is not very much that is Southern about Florida these days. Demographically and politically, the Sunshine State is some sort of eccentric mix of the new Southwest and the old Northeast. Go figure.

In the remainder of the deep South (SC, GA, AL, MS, LA and TX) , Obama somewhat outperformed Gore and Kerry everywhere except LA (Katrina effect?), but he still lost all of these states to McCain. Heavy voter turnout among the relatively large African-American and (in the case of Texas) Latino populations no doubt boosted Obama above the Gore-Kerry levels in this region. 

The Upper South, where the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states meet the old Confederacy, is perhaps the most fascinating - and instructive - region of the 2008 election. Obama underperformed (or barely equalled) both Gore and Kerry in OK, AR, TN, KY and WV. Lacking large African-American populations or significant numbers of young voters or upscale, college-educated whites, Obama had no natural base from which to operate here. Evangelical Christians and socially conservative lower-income whites dominate the electorate in this part of the Upper South.

The two eastern-most states of the Upper South (Virginia and North Carolina) presented a very different picture this cycle. In recent years, Virginia has been trending more and more blue, becoming ever more like its Mid-Atlantic neighbors to the north while losing the historic similarity to its sister states of the old Confederacy. With more and more minorities, upscale whites, young people and college grads, the Old Dominion was fertile ground for Obama - and his campaign took full advantage of that fact. Breaking a forty-four year-old GOP lock on Virginia's electoral votes, Obama won the state by slightly more than four points.

North Carolina, the last of the Upper South states to consider, is very nearly a unique case. With a large African-American population, a growing Latino minority, lots of younger voters and above-average percentages of college graduates, the Tarheel State is in many ways not unlike its neighbor to the north, Virginia. However, the mountainous areas of western NC are demographically and culturally more akin to Tennessee and West Virginia. There are proportionately more lower-income, less well-educated whites here than in Virginia although that too is slowly changing. Hence the extremely close race in North Carolina, where Obama appears to have won by less than 1% of the vote in a state that has not gone for a Democrat in a generation.

County level Presidential results throughout the country, as well as results for US House races and local contests, confirm what is all too visible at the state level. The Republican Party's greatest strength is increasingly confined to areas with voters who are overwhelmingly white, lower-income and less well-educated than the country as a whole. 

In regional terms, the GOP has become an endangered species in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. It is in full retreat throughout the Midwest. It is losing ground even in its Great Plains and Rockies heartland. While still holding on in the interior parts of the Pacific coast states, the Republican Party has all but ceased to be an equal player in any state west of the Rockies. Only in the Deep South and, especially, in the Upper South do the Republicans still hold a firm grip on political power. 

It will be interesting to see how the emerging new Republican leadership sets about tackling their party's shrinking electoral prospects. It's a daunting task. As a committed Democrat, I'm not going to lose much sleep if it takes them a while to figure it out.


Han D. said...

Wow, Steven, this is a great wrapup! I couldn't articulate it better myself. This is one that I will be passing around for sure. The only thing I might question is the contention that the Upper South has a substantially higher population of "less well-educated, low-income whites" and that this is the reason it has stuck with the Republicans like glue. I find that other states (specifically Nevada and North Carolina) have nearly the same ratio of college grads to non and socially conservative evangelicals to sane, but the difference is the type of job base that has emerged during these states' quick population growth of the last 2 decades. In North Carolina, large growth in the UNC technology corridor (largely due to the efforts of former Democratic Governor and personal hero Terry Sanford) and Charlotte's emergence as a banking mecca mean that North Carolina has seen a huge increase in Technocrats and Bankers which have always been reliable Democratic constituencies. This can also be said for the fast-growing areas of Northern Virginia and Las Vegas. Fairfax/Alexandria has seen a rapid increase in technology/software firms and former military officers working in technically-based defense subcontracting companies. This fact helped Jim Webb greatly in winning his Senate seat by uniting Northern with Southwestern Virginia. We have seen similar growth in technical jobs in Las Vegas of late, especially in municipal infrastructure design contractors that have gone national. In these examples, the educated bacon-winners tend to be technocrats.

However, states in the Upper South where Obama was trounced by McCain and actually did worse than Kerry have seen growth in very different sectors. Tennessee, for example, has experienced rapid growth in all three grand divisions, but its job base has not become any more sophisticated in the process. Middle Tennessee has a Nissan plant, a Saturn plant, and a Dell call center - fairly good paying jobs with little technological skill. West Tennessee has a FedEx shipping center and East Tennessee has a football team. All of these industries produce jobs for suppliers and tech-support, and the population growth has created spinoff jobs in real estate and commercial/residential building but these jobs require little technological skill. The result is a wide job base that is about an inch deep, and that means its fertile ground for McCain.

Avatar said...

Voter turnout was low for both the republican and democrat candidate.

This election had the largest turnout effort in history.

Stephen said...


Thanks so much for your kind words and insightful comments. You may well be right in asserting that the type of jobs and skill levels required to perform them have as much to do with defining the new Republican base as the absolute education levels of the voters there. It's a point well made.


There does seem to be some contention about the turnout level this year. However, the evidence I see suggests the turnout was substantially higher than 2004 and may well have set an all-time record. When the final votes are counted over the next couple of weeks, we will be able to answer this question definitely.