Jewish World Review Jan. 31, 2003 / 28 Kislev, 5763
John H. Fund
Half and Half: Republicans have achieved parity among American voters
After the photo-finish 2000 election it became fashionable to talk of the nation as evenly divided between Democratic "blue" states and Republican "red" states. The strong GOP showing in last November's midterm elections--Republicans won the vote for Congress by 52% to 47%--resulted in part from President Bush boosting GOP turnout and enthusiasm.
As an incumbent, Mr. Bush has an edge regardless of who his Democratic opponent is. People forget that Bill Clinton's popular-vote plurality in 1992 was only six percentage points despite the perception that the economy was in the toilet and the presence of Ross Perot, who siphoned off many traditionally Republican voters. Nonetheless, evidence continues to accumulate that institutionally the two parties are still at rough parity in terms of strength.
We still have no exit-poll data from the 2002 election, thanks to the Election Day meltdown of the media-supported Voter News Service. The best data we have on how the parties currently stack up are in a just-released Gallup Poll analysis of all 45,000 interviews Gallup conducted with voters during 2002. If Gallup is right that "a person's party identification is generally the most powerful predictor of his or her political behavior," then the country is still very evenly split in partisan terms. Gallup found that 34% of respondents called themselves Republicans, 32% Democrats and 34% independents. But then Gallup "pushed" the independents to identify which party they leaned toward. Previous surveys found that "leaners" vote for their party of choice almost as often as self-described partisans.
The result was that the two parties ended up almost as close as the 2000 division between George W. Bush and Al Gore. A total of 45.1% of respondents identified themselves as Republicans, while 44.7% indicated they were Democrats. A similar survey of 26,000 registered voters taken by the polling firm of Ipsos-Reid and the Cook Political Report also found an almost exact even split in partisan identification. These two surveys show Democrats have a real base from which to run against President Bush--especially if events hand them a lucky break.
What I found most fascinating about the Gallup survey is that its large sample size enabled it to break out individual numbers for party strength in 48 states plus the District of Columbia. (For time-zone reasons Gallup doesn't poll heavily Republican Alaska or heavily Democratic Hawaii.)
Democrats can take heart from the fact that if you use the Gallup study to look at all the states, they have a partisan identification edge in 21 states with a total of 283 electoral votes--more than the 270 needed to elect a president. Republicans lead in 29 states with 255 electoral votes.
Republicans will instead focus on the remarkable increases in partisan identification they've made since the last major Gallup study in 1993, at the start of Bill Clinton's first term. The proportion of people identifying themselves as Republicans increased 7.4 percentage points during that time, an unusually large shift. The GOP gained ground in 41 states. The states where Democrats lost ground--and where they didn't--tells us a lot about the relative strength of the parties.
The Northeast, once such a bastion of Republican support that it delivered Herbert Hoover's only electoral votes against FDR in 1932, has become the base camp for any Democratic candidate's march to the White House. Four of the six announced Democratic candidates--John Kerry, Howard Dean, Al Sharpton and Joe Lieberman--hail from the Northeast.
In the Gallup survey, four of the seven states where Republicans have lost ground since 1993 are in the Northeast. Former swing states such as New Jersey and Delaware now lean Democratic. Indeed, Democrats have now swept the Northeastern states, except New Hampshire and West Virginia in 2000, for three straight elections. Together the Northeast delivers 115 electoral votes, almost halfway to a majority. Democrats clearly need the Northeast, but just as obviously they can't win without making inroads in other regions.
That explains the allure of Sen. John Edwards's candidacy. Although he has a reliably liberal voting record, Mr. Edwards has a populist streak, a honeyed North Carolina accent and the engaging manner of many Southern pols. His argument is that Democrats have to break into the South to have any chance of winning. The Gallup survey backs him up. For the first time in history, Republicans have a plurality or majority of voters identifying with them in every Southern state except Arkansas and Louisiana. Voters in Mississippi identify with Republicans by 54% to 38%. In Texas, it's 52% to 40%. As befits the virtually tied 2000 presidential results, Florida has the narrowest of GOP edges (46.2% to 45.8%).
Another major battleground for the White House is the Midwest. Former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri argues that he can appeal to that region's tradition of economic populism and traditional values better than the other Democratic candidates. There are bright spots for Democrats in the Midwest. While Ohio has become more Republican in recent years, Illinois now clearly leans to the Democrats. Michigan is a complete tossup, with both parties having 44% support. Mr. Gephardt may be the only Democrat who could carry the 11 electoral votes of Missouri, a longtime bellwether that now leans Republican.
Out West, the states fall into two camps. The three coastal states tilt Democratic, while the interior states are overwhelmingly Republican. California remains surprisingly competitive in partisan identification, with Democrats holding a 49% to 43% edge that closely mirrors Gov. Gray Davis's margin over GOP challenger Bill Simon last year. A Democrat still has the edge in a presidential race in California, but a popular President Bush could make a run for its 55 electoral votes. The mountain states are increasingly Republican, due in part to an influx of conservative voters fleeing California. The most Republican states in the country are Utah, Idaho and Dick Cheney's Wyoming.
Both parties always claim they will run a 50-state general election campaign that won't slight any state. But in reality, the way to reach 270 electoral votes is to concede large swaths of territory to the opposition and focus on a few battleground states. There you pour in resources for television airtime and get-out-the-vote efforts.
The dozen largest states listed in the chart nearby cast a clear majority of 285 electoral votes. Eyeballing the list you can see that the fiercest fights will come in Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan. If you live there, expect to be dive-bombed with messages from both candidates until you want to say uncle. If you live in a small state that tilts towards one candidate or the other, you may feel as lonely as the Maytag repairman. Our nation may be equally divided, but some states' divisions are more equal than others.
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11/11/02: Sobering Thoughts: The GOP's cup runneth over? No, it's half empty