Previewing Senate Elections: California, Section 1

This is the third part of a series of posts analyzing competitive Senate elections in blue states. It will focus on California. Because California is such a big and complicated state, it will have two sections – of which this is the first. The second part can be found here.

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

California, Section 1

In the greatest state of the union, a fierce senatorial battle is brewing. Former HP executive Carly Fiorina is mounting a tough challenge to incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer. In an anti-Democratic national environment, polls show the race close and competitive. This post will examine the obstacles Ms. Fiorina will face as she seeks to overcome California’s formidable Democratic geography.

Link to Map of California, 2008 Presidential Election

As America’s most populous state, California contains a number of distinct regions. This post, and the one following, will examine each.

Upper California and the Sierra Nevada

When people think of California, the northern forests and year-round snow of the Sierra Nevada generally do not come into mind. These regions, geographically expansive yet thinly populated, tend to vote loyally Republican (although until the 1970s Democrats had a base of support in several northeastern counties).

Not all of this region is Republican-voting, unpopulated wilderness. Exurban Placer County, for instance, contained 173,812 voters in 2008. Other parts – especially the liberal coast – tend to vote Democratic, eating in to Republican strength.

Ms. Fiorina will probably need something like 70% of the vote in places like Placer County to win. Strong margins from this Republican stronghold constitute the first, easiest step to a Republican victory.

The Bay Area

In many ways, the Bay Area is what makes California a blue state. Without the Bay Area, for instance, President George W. Bush would – almost – have won California in 2004, losing by a mere 0.7%.

Link to Picture of Bay Area, 2004 Presidential Election

 Unfortunately for Republicans, the Bay Area – one of the richest, most diverse, and most liberal places in the country – does indeed exist, and it votes strongly Democratic. A popular attack against Senator Boxer is to call her a San Francisco liberal; this generally works less well in San Francisco.

In addition, voting habits in the Bay Area tend to be “sticky.” If the rest of California moves ten points more Republican, the Bay Area will tend to move only five points right. San Francisco and Alameda counties are sometimes the last two counties standing during Republican landslides.

There is a glimmer of hope for Republicans, however. The counties surrounding San Francisco and Berkeley tend to be one degree less intense in their liberalism. Ms. Fiorina will not win them, but a well-run campaign can reduce Democratic margins somewhat.

Central Valley

Home to some of the richest farmland in America, the counties composing Central Valley once leaned Democratic but now vote Republican in all but Democratic landslides. Conservative and heavily populated – although not by California standards – Central Valley provides somewhat of a reservoir to offset the enormous Democratic margins radiating from the Bay Area.

There is, however, one important exception: Sacramento, a populous county whose Democratic leanings deny Republicans a vast store of potential votes.

In the long run, Central Valley is a ticking time bomb. Democratic-voting Latinos compose 30-50% of the population in many of these counties, and their numbers will only increase. For now Ms. Fiorina is safe – Latinos do not vote their numbers, especially in mid-terms – but future Republicans cannot take Central Valley for granted.

The Challenge of Southern California

It is in the urban sprawl of SoCal, however, where Republicans face their greatest challenge. Ms. Fiorina has two tasks here. The first is to win the counties outside Los Angeles, and win them big. The second is to keep Los Angeles itself within single digits.

The next post will expand upon SoCal and offer a conclusion on Republican prospects of winning California.



Polarization: Past and Present

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

A number of commentators have lamented increasing polarization in Washington. Conventional wisdom has it that America is as divided and partisan as it ever has been. Sectional divisions are tearing this country apart and preventing problems such as the deficit from being addressed; the differences between blue America and red America, in this view, are rapidly approaching crisis point.

There is some justice to this view. Polarization has probably increased, by a number of metrics, over the past few elections. Indeed, I previously noted something to this exact effect.

Let’s take another look, however, at the hypothesis, using a different type of measurement. We will consider the composition of the House of Representatives, specifically examining partisan divisions by state. Do blue states elect Republican representatives, and vice versa? In a polarized nation, this would probably not be the case.

Here is a map of a House with a Republican majority:

Map of 108th House of Representatives

This House was the result of 2002 congressional elections. Republicans had done well in the wake of 9/11, and they had a 232-201 majority.

In the map there are relatively few states with 80-100% of representatives from one party. Blue states elect Republicans; red states elect Democrats. Moreover; for some states (e.g. Delaware, the Dakotas) it is mathematically impossible to be less than 100% Democratic or Republican.

Here is the House today:

Map of 111th House of Representatives

This is a fascinating map in that it almost perfectly matches the 2008 electoral college. One sees the Republican corridor of strength in the South and Mountain West. Most of the map is blue since Democrats have a 255-178 majority, the result of two previous Democratic landslides.

Let’s move back several decades:

Map of 88th House of Representatives

The date is 1960; President John Kennedy has just been elected. Democrats hold a 258-177 majority, almost identical to that today.

There are a lot more “one-party states” compared to the current map. Sectional division is far more pronounced; there is a line between North and South that simply does not exist in today’s House. In 1960 – especially in the still-standing Solid South – blue states generally did not elect Republicans, and vice versa.

Polarization grows even worse if one goes back further. Here is 2002, once again:

Map of 108th House of Representatives

Here is 1894:

Map of 54th House of Representatives

Republicans have just won 130(!) seats. They hold a 254 to 93 majority.

In this incredible map, there are only six states with congressional delegations less than 80-100% from one party. In it one can literally trace the battlefields of the Civil War.

This is real polarization, the results of a nation so divided it had literally torn itself in two. This is the type of polarization that results from scars so deep that they took more than a century to heal.

Perhaps today America is indeed growing more polarized, more divided into red states and blue states. But when one compares the present situation to past ones, there is literally no comparison. The United States has a long way to go before it gets as polarized as it did during the latter half of the 19th century.


Previewing Senate Elections: New York

This is the second part of a series of posts analyzing competitive Senate elections in blue states. The third part can be found here.

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

New York

Out of the three heavily Democratic states being analyzed, Republicans probably have the least chance of winning New York. A serious Republican challenger to Senator Kristen Gillibrand has yet to emerge. Moreover, Ms. Gillibrand has proven an adept politician willing to campaign hard.

Nevertheless, in a bad national environment with low name recognition, victory for Democrats is not assured. Under the right circumstances (perhaps a Gillibrand scandal), Republicans may be able to pull off a shocker.

Map of New York, 2008 Presidential Election

Like Illinois, New York can be divided into three sections: upstate, the suburbs downstate, and New York City. A New York Republican must win upstate and the suburbs by substantial margins – and perform extremely well in New York City.

Upstate New York

Like Illinois, the first step on the Republican road to victory lies with here. A Republican candidate must win strong margins upstate; a strong performance here is embedded with a double-digit loss.

Unfortunately for Republicans, upstate New York and downstate Illinois are not the same. Unlike Illinois, upstate New York is home to four major cities: Buffalo, Rochester, Albany, and Syracuse. In a normal election – i.e. a double-digit Democratic victory – these cities will vote Democratic, some by substantial margins.

There are several more wrinkles for a Republican candidate. Like much of the rural northeast, upstate New York has been trending Democratic. Despite the conservative national mood, Democrats last year won two special elections upstate. Moreover, Senator Kristen Gillibrand has roots there; she represented an upstate congressional district before becoming Senator.

Nevertheless, the majority of this region still votes loyally Republican; a competitive candidate can rely upon it to help counter New York City. In a close election a Republican ought to win almost every county in upstate New York.

The Suburbs Downstate

This region can be defined as the suburbs surrounding New York City: Long Island and the communities around Yonkers. A Republican’s task here is similar to that upstate: win, and win big.

Historically this was not too difficult; New York City’s suburbs regularly voted Republican, although never by enough to overcome Democratic margins in the city itself. Like many other suburbs, this changed with President Bill Clinton: since his time they have generally voted Democratic.

Today things are changing once more. Since the events of 9/11, downstate’s suburbs (especially Long Island) have been trending Republican. This was one of the few regions Senator John McCain did well in (as opposed to President Barack Obama doing poorly in); his national security credentials appealed to a number of downstate suburban voters.

A strong Republican must capitalize on this trend, changing New York’s suburbs back into Republican territory. This strength, added to margins from upstate, makes for a 5% Republican loss. Republican candidates have achieved this combination many times in the state’s electoral history. Take 1968, when President Richard Nixon lost New York by 5.46%:

Map of New York, 1968 Presidential Election

The problem is the last 5%, to  which a Republican must look to New York City for.

New York City

To make up the last 5%, a Republican candidate must do well in New York City, that great metropolis of the United States. The Big Apple composes an astounding 43% of the state’s population, the largest proportion in the country. It also votes extremely Democratic; in 2008 four out of five voters turned the lever for President Barack Obama.

The Republican facing Ms. Gillibrand will have to substantially improve upon this number. This is not as hard as it first sounds. New York City, after all, has had a non-Democratic mayor for more than a decade. Low minority turn-out looks likely to bedevil Democrats during this off-year election. Moreover, Republicans retain a base in Staten Island and southern Brooklyn. Even in 2008 these places voted Republican:

Map of New York City, 2008 By Precinct

Finally, some regional complexities come into play. Although almost all of New York City voted for Mr. Obama, some parts are more less loyally Democratic than others (as was the case in Massachusetts). White liberals and impoverished minorities in Manhattan and the Bronx almost never vote Republican; suburbanites in Brooklyn and Queens, on the other hand, are more perceptible to Republican appeals. Winning Republicans generally tie or win the Queens borough and hold Democrats below 60% in the Kings borough.


If New York is close next November, it will probably look something like this:

Map of Hypothetical Election in New York

This map can indicate anything from a 5% Democratic victory to a 5% Republican victory, depending on turn-out. Perhaps the best barometer will be the Queens borough in New York City. Look to it next November – it might literally determine the fate of the Democratic Senate majority.



Analyzing Obama’s Weak Spots – Part 2: The Northeast

This is the second part of three posts analyzing the congressional districts President Barack Obama underperformed in. It will focus on his relative weakness in the northeast. The third part can be found here.

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

The Northeast

In my previous post I created a map of congressional districts in which Mr. Obama performed worse than Senator John Kerry:

Map of Districts in Which Kerry Did Better Than Obama

In this map the most obvious pattern is a roughly diagonal corridor of Republican-shifting congressional districts, stretching from Oklahoma and Louisiana through the Appalachians. This area has long been seen as a place in which the electorate is moving away from the Democratic Party.

The post then looked at the Northeast, another region in which Mr. Kerry did better than Mr. Obama. Unlike Applachia and the Mississippi Delta, the conventional wisdom characterizes the Northeast as a stable Democratic stronghold. Yet, as the map below indicates, six northeastern congressional districts shifted Republican in 2008:

Map of Northeast Districts

Much of the movement in Massachusetts, of course, occurs due to the loss of Mr. Kerry’s home-state advantage. Yet the districts in Massachusetts (MA-4, MA-6, MA-7, MA-9, and MA-10) also share a number of commonalities. All are quite suburban, quite wealthy, and quite white. Unlike the Appalachian districts above, these places vote substantially Democratic. Neither Mr. McCain nor former President George W. Bush came within single-digits in any of these districts (I suspect 1988 was the last time a Republican presidential candidate did so). Yet this is also Scott Brown territory; the Republican candidate won four of these districts.

Notice, too, the highlighted New York district (NY-9). Like those in Massachusetts, this district is inhabited mainly by middle-class, Democratic-voting whites. The effect of 9/11, which convinced many New Yorkers to vote Republican, was particularly strong in places like these (in fact, it was probably greater here than anywhere else in the nation). Orthodox Jews, an increasingly Republican demographic heavily represented in this district, have shifted strongly Republican since then.

Indeed, Long Island as a whole was relatively lukewarm towards Obama. Apart from the fighting ninth, Republicans did respectably in NY-3 and NY-5, holding Obama’s improvement to less than 1% in both districts. Like NY-9, these places are wealthy and suburban.

One wonders whether this change is merely a temporary blip or the start of something more worrisome for Democrats. The case of Florida is probably not reassuring:

Map of Florida Districts

This is Florida’s Gold Coast – a Democratic stronghold – and three districts here (FL-19, FL-20, FL-22) voted more Republican than in 2004. Mr. McCain’s age probably helped him along here; the large population of retirees may have empathized with one of their own.

Ironically, a large number of these retirees probably came from NY-9 or eastern Massachusetts. Like both areas, these districts vote Democratic but have been slowly moving Republican. FL-22 is the exception, having been not very Democratic to begin with. In FL-19 and FL-20, on the other hand, Democratic candidate Al Gore did substantially better than both Obama and Kerry. This was a function of the substantial Jewish population in these districts; Jews strongly supported Joe Lieberman, his Jewish nominee for Vice President.

Fortunately for Democrats, almost none of the Florida or northeast districts represent a 2010 pick-up opportunity for Republicans. Except for FL-22, all have voted Democratic by double-digits for at least three consecutive presidential elections. A few weeks ago a special election in FL-19 resulted in a 27% Democratic margin victory. It is the long-term that is worth concern for Democrats.

In the short term, Democrats must worry about Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta. There Democrats are in deep, deep trouble for 2010. There are a surprising amount of Democratic representatives in these Appalachian seats where Mr. McCain did better than Mr. Bush. Their predicament will be the subject of the next post.



Political Spectrum Moves Right

Host of The Young Turks Cenk Uygur guest hosting on MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan Show explains how the political spectrum has shifted far to the right in the last 30 years.




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