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Jewish World Review March 16, 2000 /9 Adar 2, 5760

Ben Wattenberg

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The Vote Belt -- THE OTHER DAY former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell said that California and New York were the largest states in America, that no Republican had ever won the presidency without winning at least one of them, that George W. Bush would lose both, that Al Gore would be the next president.

Simple. And wrong. Gore will indeed probably carry California and New York, but New York is no longer the second largest state. Texas is, and will vote for its Republican governor this year. New York is now in third place. In fourth is Florida, which normally goes Republican in close elections. So: It's not such a Gore advantage when understood that in even a mildly close election Gore gets No. 1 and No. 3, and Bush gets No. 2 and No. 4.

For data junkies, and to offer a sense of the Southwesterning of America during the 20th century, here are the big four population numbers for 1900 and 1998: California 1.5 million to 32.7 million (up 2,100 percent); Texas 3.1 million to 20.0 million (up 540 percent); New York 7.3 million to 18.1 million (up 150 percent); Florida 0.5 million to 14.9 million (up 2,900 percent).

Curiously, because of the nature of the electoral college system by which we elect presidents, these four "un-close" states are not "important" in the sense that, by definition, they are unlikely to decide who wins a close race.

So, what psephologists (look it up) pay most attention to are the "big swing states." As it happens, most of these run in a contiguous tier from the Northeast to the Midwest. They are: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. Call them the Vote Belt.

Their joint population totals 53 million, and they provide 99 of the 269 electoral votes needed to win. That's more than enough to prevail if coupled with either Republican-leaning Southern states or Democratic bastions in California and the Northeast. (In the last four national elections, the Vote Belt states split their aggregated electoral votes 198 for Democrats and 216 for Republicans.)

Accordingly, with major party candidates already picked, with eight very long months of proliferating, polemical pontification by politicians and pundits, how should we look at the process?

Through the lens of the Vote Belt. The political media, concentrated in Washington and New York, have mild vision problems with mid-continent voters. For example, much has been made of how George W. Bush "moved to the right" in South Carolina and how that would come to haunt him in later, more moderate states.

Much quoted was John McCain's charge that Bush was a "Pat Robertson Republican." Now, there are indeed a lot of people in America who don't like Robertson, and a smaller number who like him a great deal. But because Vote Belt voters are less liberal than the New York-Washington political media mindset, Pat-as-boogeyman tactics work better in California, New York and New England than in the O-M-P-I-N states.

So, too, with the caterwauling that followed the alleged anti-Catholic horror show of Bush's visit to Bob Jones University. Would Catholic primary voters in New York be turned off? Bush carried the state and beat McCain among Catholics solidly, 52 percent to 43 percent. It didn't play well in New York, and it will probably play less well in the Vote Belt.

Ironically, with all the talk, and little evidence, about Bush moving to the right, it is Gore who has been sucked to a polar position, leftward, during the primary contests with Bill Bradley. New Democrat cadres of the Democrat Leadership Council have been disappointed and disillusioned by such moves. Legitimization of the Rev. Al Sharpton and support for open declarations of gayness in the military are not exactly plus issues in the Vote Belt.

Now Gore is headed to the center of the spectrum at the speed of light, not necessarily a credible pace in politics. What can he do? Right now, the most constructive and profitable position he could take would concern what conservatives call "partial privatization" of Social Security, what Democratic moderates call "enhanced personal savings through carve-outs" and what the AFL-CIO leadership calls disaster, for reasons fathomable to few. It's hard to imagine labor leaders of yore opposing a policy yielding profitable ownership of the means of production to all workers, including those in the labor-heavy Vote Belt.

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a DLC-related think tank, fears that Gore may not be flexible enough on the issue. "It's important for the vice president not to be boxed in as a defender of programmatic Social Security without leaving the door open for structural reform, including more personal savings that must be made, sooner than later." In bumper-sticker language that means "More Money to the People," which would play well in the Vote Belt.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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