One of the most profound developments of the last two election cycles has been a reversal of the dynamic–prevalent since 1994–of a superior Republican ability to “control the map”–to win in small states with disproportionate political clout, and to win downballot contests outside their electoral base.
It’s sometimes hard to remember this, but until 2006 many Democrats were in a condition of unhappy resignation to a Republican congressional advantage born of geographical and demographic realities beyond their control. With “red states” outnumbering “blue states” three-to-two, how could Democrats, even in a country divided evenly in the national popular vote, ever hope to maintain a majority in the Senate, which awards all states two seats? The same reality, Democrats feared, would give Republicans a built-in advantage in control of state governments, and hence, congressional redistricting. Gerrymandering plus a more efficient distribution of Republican voters in House districts would, many concluded, make control of the U.S. House a perpetually uphill battle for the Donkey Party.
How have Democrats overcome these very real obstacles in the last two elections? There are really two answers: they’ve built a national popular vote majority that’s large enough to overcome any GOP bias in the structure of the electoral college, the Senate, the House and the states, and they’ve learned how to win in tough terrain, even as Republicans increasingly lost that ability.
In his National Journal column today, Ron Brownstein lays out the numbers in terms of the startling reversal of partisan fortune when it comes to Senate and House races in red and blue states:
Eighteen states might be considered the “true blue” states. These 18 (all of the Kerry 2004 states, except New Hampshire) have voted Democratic in each of the past five presidential elections. With this month’s defeat of Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., Republicans now hold only four of those 18 states’ 36 Senate seats. The number will shrink to three if Sen. Norm Coleman loses a recount to Democrat Al Franken in Minnesota.
Democrats, again, are moving in the opposite direction. Twenty-nine states voted for Bush both times. After 2004, Democrats held just 14 of the 58 Senate seats from those 29 states — a testament to Bush’s first-term success at energizing the conservative base. But with this week’s Alaska victory, Democrats since 2004 have captured eight more red-state Senate seats, giving them at least 22 overall (with another pickup possible in the Georgia runoff). Democrats now hold at least 38 percent of the Senate seats in the past decade’s red states, while Republicans hold just 11 percent of blue-state seats.
Republicans likewise end the Bush years retreating in blue congressional districts. In 2004, Kerry outpolled Bush in 180 districts. After the 2004 election, Republicans held 18 of those 180 Democratic-leaning seats. But after back-to-back losses, Republicans now hold just five.
Once again, Democrats are displaying much wider reach. In 2004, Bush outpolled Kerry in 255 congressional districts. After the 2004 election, Republicans controlled a commanding 213 of those 255 seats, leaving Democrats just 42. But after gains in 2006 and 2008, the Democratic total in those red districts has almost doubled — to 83. That means while Republicans control less than 3 percent of the congressional districts that voted for Kerry last time, Democrats hold nearly one-third of the districts that backed Bush.
These phenomena, says Brownstein, faithfully reflected earlier decisions by the GOP to seek to build a national majority by relentless base-tending supplementing by highly targeted outreach to selected swing voter categories. It didn’t work.
All of these trends expose the same dynamic: Democrats are effectively courting voters with diverse views, but the Republican capacity to appeal to voters beyond their party’s core coalition has collapsed.
Bush targeted most of his priorities toward the GOP base. And since 2005, he has faced overwhelming disapproval among independent voters and near-unanimous rejection from Democrats.
McCain, with his reputation for independence, was supposed to restore the GOP’s competitiveness among swing voters. But to win the GOP nomination, McCain embraced Bush’s core economic and foreign policies and then selected, in Sarah Palin, a running mate who waged the culture war with a zeal that made Bush and Karl Rove look squeamish.
In other words, the very fact that it was John McCain at the top of the GOP ticket this year is a testament to the failure of the “base-plus” strategies made so famous by Karl Rove. If anyone should have been able to expand the GOP base, it was the Arizonan, who entered the contest with a (perhaps undeserved) reputation for independence, particularly on issues like immigration reform and government ethics that were important to some of the same swing voter categories Rove had been lusting after.
Sure, you can, as some Republicans insist on doing, attribute all of these results to the mid-September financial collapse, but the same trends were very evident in 2006. The Democratic base is expanding, the Republican base is contracting, and unfortunately for the GOP, representatives of its residual base are totally in charge of the party now, more determined than ever to make it an ideologically coherent “clubhouse” (to use Brownstein’s term) instead of a big tent.
None of this guarantees Democratic success in the future, and 2010 still looms as a year when Democrats must face the voters as the unquestioned governing party in Washington for the first time since 1994. Those incredibly high “wrong track” numbers, unless they begin to shift, will eventually be a problem rather than an opportunity for Democrats. But we now have the clear example before us of the failure of a GOP strategy that so very recently looked compelling and perhaps invincible, based on a political map of the country that proved to be no more permanent than, I suspect, the one we see today.