Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Political Geography

Obama clearly moved into the White House with the idea of being a transformative liberal president in the tradition of FDR and LBJ. I’ve noted before (echoing Nate Silver), that Obama’s trying to play in their league with substantially smaller legislative majorities behind him. Jay Cost points to another respect in which Obama lacks a FDR- or LBJ-sized mandate: he has a much narrower geographical base. Here’s Cost (my emphasis):
“Obama's victory was geographically narrower than Reagan's, LBJ's, Ike's or FDR's. Substantially so. Obama did much more poorly in rural and small town locales. They have a history of progressive/liberal support, but Obama was unable to place himself in the rural progressive tradition of William Jennings Bryan.  . . .   Most of his political support comes from the big cities and the inner suburbs. The exurbs, small towns, and rural areas generally voted Republican (with notable exceptions in the Upper Midwest).

“In fact, if you look at presidential elections going back 100 years, Obama's is the most geographically narrow of any victors except Carter, Kennedy, and Truman - none of whom had transformative presidencies. Even Bill Clinton in 1996, whose share of the two-party vote was comparable to Obama's, still had a geographically broader voting coalition. Ditto George H.W. Bush in 1988. . . .

“In our system, it's not just the number of votes that matter, but - thanks to Roger Sherman - how they are distributed across the several states. Obama's urban support base was sufficient for political success in the House, which passed a very liberal health care bill last November. But rural places have greater sway in the Senate - and Obama's weakness in rural America made for a half-dozen skittish Democrats who represent strong McCain states. The evolving thinking on the left – ‘Obama should have used his campaign-trail magic to change the political dynamic’ - is thus totally misguided. The ‘remarkable capacities he displayed during the 2008 campaign’ never persuaded the constituents of the red state Democrats he had to win over. Why should they suddenly start doing so now?”
On the most optimistic Democratic scenarios, Obama and the party will be able to limit their electoral loses by firing up the Democratic base. But it has never occurred even to cockeyed Democratic optimists that they’ll be able to maintain, much less expand, the geographical reach of their support any time in the foreseeable future. If Cost it right about the importance of geography, that means that Obama and the Democratic Party will have to scale back their ambitions accordingly, whether the Democratic base likes it or not.

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