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Jewish World Review Oct. 30, 2000 / 1 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Consumer Reports

Puzzled by the state poll results? So are the candidates --
IN THIS excruciatingly close election, the states are not lining up like they used to. Florida, where the elder George Bush won 61 percent of the vote in 1988, is now the most furiously contested state, with polls showing both George W. Bush and Al Gore with small leads. New Jersey, a key target state in 1988, is now safely Democratic. So, probably, is California. Yet in Oregon and Washington, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Iowa and West Virginia–six of the 10 states carried by Michael Dukakis in 1988–polls have shown Bush leading or in contention. And Al Gore has spent precious late-in-the-campaign time in his home state of Tennessee, where he has been trailing in polls.

Most experts are puzzled by these trends. But there is a reasonably simple explanation. If you look over the electoral map of the past dozen years, you will see that Bill Clinton's Democrats have made their greatest gains in the nation's very largest metropolitan areas. At the same time, Republicans have been gaining in rural areas and the fast-growing metropolitan fringe. These political movements have left the parties closely divided. Clinton was re-elected with 49 percent of the vote in 1996, and Republicans won the House with 49 percent in 1996 and 1998.

Major-metro trend. The new political map is evident from the election results of 1996. Nationwide, Bill Clinton ran just 3.6 percentage points ahead of where Michael Dukakis did in 1988. But in seven of the largest metropolitan areas, with one quar- ter of the nation's voters–New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Fran- cisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit–Clinton ran 8 points ahead of Duka- kis. In the rest of the country, he ran just 2 points ahead.

In these vast suburban sprawls, with their sophisticated, cynical, secular voters, Clinton's performance gets high approval and his peccadilloes raise few hackles. Abortion rights and gun control have wide support here. The swing toward Democrats in these big metro areas explains why New Jersey (100 percent major metro) is solidly Dem- ocratic, why Illinois (where metro Chicago casts nearly two thirds of votes) is the most Democratic Midwestern state, why California (where metro L.A. and the Bay Area cast two thirds of votes) has been leaning to Gore. The major-metro trend also explains why Florida is close. In 1996 Clinton beat Dukakis's score by 14 points on the Gold Coast and by 9 points in the Tampa-Orlando I-4 corridor.

Usually when a party makes gains somewhere, it suffers offsetting losses, and so it is with Clinton's Democrats. Clinton's 1996 percentage was lower than Dukakis's in 17 states, from the Pacific Northwest to the Upper Midwest to West Virginia. Outside major metropolitan areas, where voters are more anticorruption, tradition minded, and religious than the national average, Clinton has turned off voters. Clinton Democrats' loud support of gun control and abortion rights is a political liability in these areas. Such attitudes are found in some large states as well. In the two thirds of Pennsylvania beyond metro Philadelphia, as in neighboring West Virginia, the Democratic percentage has sagged under Clinton. The north country of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, long Democratic, now are trending toward Bush. So is Al Gore's still heavily rural Tennessee.

This new political map is based not on economics but on cultural issues. The seven large metro areas have trended Democratic, though they are far above average in income and wealth. Republican-trending areas include low-income West Virginia and the lower-income interior parts of California and the Pacific Northwest. The defining issues here may be two that neither major party candidate has been talking much about, abortion and gun control. Earlier this year, Democrats were slavering at the prospect of sweeping to victory on these two issues. Republicans were worried that they would be playing defense. But opinion on these issues in the target states is pretty evenly balanced. Not long ago Al Gore was boldly calling for gun control. In the debates he meekly tried to reassure Pennsylvania and Michigan hunters that he wouldn't take their guns away.

Who will benefit most from the new political map? Most analyses have focused on the areas where Democrats have gained in the Clinton years. The national media, headquartered in New York and Washington, have focused on the Democratic trend in the Northeast. But major metro areas are casting a declining share of the nation's votes, while fast-growing counties beyond metro-edge cities, with family-size subdivisions and megachurches, are heavily Republican. Republicans won the House in 1994 with big rural gains and have held it since despite losses in major metro areas. The new political map puts Bush in a weaker position than his father was in 1988 in California, Illinois, New Jersey, Florida, and six other states, with 145 electoral votes. But it puts him in a stronger position in 19 states with 201 electoral votes. With key states still at knife-edge margins, it won't be clear whom the new map helps until election night.

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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04/04/00: President-elect Putin offers a basis for hopes–and for fears
03/14/00: Over the long, long haul, the issues may yet favor the Republicans
03/02/00: Will unions rule? Indispensable to Gore, labor may be the campaign's secret winner
02/15/00: A reformers' party
01/03/00: The voters rule: In Manchester, Mexico, and Moscow, an imperfect system works
01/19/00: The era of Big Promises
12/08/99: Welcome to the world of 'good enough'
11/2/99: Just saying no
11/12/99: Money talks, as it should
10/28/99: Mexico votes – for real
10/03/99: Going against type
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08/31/99: China's strait flush
08/25/99: The first two contests
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06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©2000, Michael Barone