Two Weeks to Midnight: Reflections on a House Divided

In honor of the college students who are taking midterm exams on campuses all over the country (thanks to their morally compromised administrators who prioritize income over public health), this installment of the Toteboard begins with a quiz. See you how do on the following questions (don’t peek at the answers):

Question 1. During the last five presidential elections, from 2000 to 2016, how many states (including DC) voted for the presidential candidate from the SAME party EVERY time?

Question 2. During those last five presidential elections, how many states voted for the presidential candidate from the same party exactly FOUR out of FIVE times? Can you name them?

Question 3. Can you name the states that “split” their votes during that period, i.e., voting for one party three times, and voting for the other twice?

Question 4. During the last SEVEN presidential elections, from 1992 to 2016, how many states voted for the presidential candidate from the same party at least six times?

Answers:

1. A total of 38 states voted for the same party in every election.

2. A total of seven states voted for the same party in four out of the last five elections: Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

3. A total of six states “split” their votes over the five elections: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia.

4. A total of 39 states voted for the same party in at least 6 of the last 7 elections.

Now if this were an essay test, the Toteboard would ask you to write about the significance of these numbers, but it will instead save you the trouble. The main upshot from this is that over nearly two generations, the country’s electoral map has remained remarkably consistent. And on closer inspection, it has actually been even more consistent than these numbers would indicate. Yes, Indiana voted for Obama in 2008, and New Hampshire voted for Bush in 2000, and New Mexico voted for Bush in 2004, but those were really just one-shot anomalies, and those states have pretty much reverted since then to their “default” values (though Trump did make NH much closer than expected). Along those lines, seeming battlegrounds like Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia have pretty much transformed from indigo to blue over the last three elections (though NV still has a purplish tinge), and are likely to stay that way in the foreseeable future. In reality, the pool of states that are genuinely up for grabs from cycle to cycle is really a pretty shallow one.

The flip side of the coin is that despite what some pundits periodically try to tell you, the country is not undergoing any process of significant partisan realignment, and is unlikely to do so anytime soon. Yes, Trump has made inroads with the white working class, while simultaneously alienating people in the suburbs, and that does show up in the net balance within some states, but that has actually shifted the overall colors (and the overall math) only slightly. If you want to see what a real realignment looks like, take a gander at the 1956 and 1964 electoral maps. In the first, the only states democrat Adlai Stevenson could muster against Dwight Eisenhower were along the buckle of the “Yellow Dog Democrat” Bible Belt (nine in 1952, seven in 1956), even as the liberal Stevenson was hardly a good fit for southern sensibilities. But a mere eight years later, five of those same Southern states were the only ones in the country to join Barry Goldwater’s home state of Arizona in the Republican column, and they spent the next two or three decades further reddening with each passing election. It’s pretty amazing what something as simple as a little old Civil Rights Act can do to shake up partisan loyalties . . . and to demonstrate how much race really has defined American politics over the years (and not in a good way). Now, that’s a realignment.

Nothing analogous to that, i.e., where large multi-state clusters decide overnight that their interests are better served by the party they traditionally opposed, is happening these days. Rather, while the Toteboard does acknowledge that there were certainly some electorally important Obama/Trump voters in a handful of key states, and is hopefully anticipating that there will be an even larger swath of Trump/Biden voters two weeks down the road, most of the recent (and likely) partisan transformations in specific states have more to do with shifting demographics and expansions and/or contractions of local industry than changes in voter sentiments. Virginia didn’t turn from red to blue with Obama’s 2008 victory because a bunch of Virginians suddenly changed their minds about which party platform they preferred – it did so because the expanding DC suburbs expanded their way deeper into northern Virginia, bringing with them a professional class of young, politically-engaged liberal voters. Likewise, Arizona is now a battleground state not because Arizonans suddenly broke from their Goldwater roots, but because the traditionally light-turnout Hispanic communities have begun to find their voice as a political power and the burgeoning Phoenix metro area has attracted a plethora of new blue-base voters from other states. And of course, this is ultimately sort of a zero-sum game. If a bunch of democrats move into Virginia or Arizona, well, they have to be moving from somewhere, and so hiccups on one side of the electoral map are usually balanced by some counter-hiccups on the other. As a couple of states get slightly bluer, a couple others get slightly redder.

Implication #1: Tomorrow is Yesterday. Barring some unexpected political game-changer, the electoral map will look pretty much the same for the next several cycles. The war will be waged in pretty much the same half-dozen to a dozen states, with perhaps one or two new ones rotating in, and one or two rotating out, much as Arizona rotated in and Michigan rotated out this time around. During especially partisan years, when there is an economic crisis or an unusually divisive administration, the center of gravity may temporarily shift to one side, though it will probably shift back once things normalize.

Implication #2: To Half and Half Not. It’s doubtful that the framers of the Constitution anticipated that presidential candidates would be able to ignore 80% of the states during their respective campaigns, but that’s pretty much the undemocratic predicament this age of hyper-polarization has caused. And when parties are effectively authorized not to be accountable to huge swaths of the country, that further exacerbates the already fragile demographic and ideological tensions. Throw in partisan gerrymandering, the urban-rural divide, and tribal affiliations, and all the ingredients are there for a prolonged internal cold war between increasingly inelastic constituencies, each making up around half of the country’s voting population. It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t all that long ago when presidential elections were characterized more often than not by landslides, and not always favoring the same party. In the ten elections between 1904 and 1940, an astounding eight of them were decided by double-digit popular vote differences (three of which were differences of more than twenty percentage points) with four favoring democrats, and four favoring republicans. If that seems like ancient history, well, in the six elections from 1952 to 1972, four were double-digit landslides as well, one democratic and three republican. In other words, there used to be such a thing as a national mandate, where the country really was (more or less) united in its collective will to pursue a specific direction. And as history demonstrates, the potential to tap into that mandate was not restricted to either party alone. Such a scenario seems pretty far-fetched these days, when even a maniac like Trump is likely to hit at least 45% of the popular vote and carry twenty states. We are truly in a state of partisan paralysis.

A Final Note: A zero-sum game of partisan division is not inherently destructive. There is much to be said for what can be accomplished when constituencies with competing interests negotiate those interests in good faith and deliberate to mutually agreeable conclusions. However, such division becomes corrosive when participants believe – as a result of some combination of naivete, spite, misinformation, and entitlement – that such things as economic prosperity, personal or cultural freedom, and even happiness itself are subject to the same zero-sum calculus. That is to say, it’s a dangerous and demoralizing situation when people who are out of work blame the vilified other who stole “their” jobs, or when people views others who speak different languages and have different cultural frames of reference as taking over “their” country. What has made Trump’s presidency so malignant is not simply that he “incited division” (which is far too defanged and sanitized a phrase), it was the way he instinctively fed, perpetuated, and often created the insidious narrative that we are one another’s enemies. When Trump boasts that he has “saved the suburbs” from “low-income housing,” he is really saying that he has protected one group of Americans, the one whom he privileges, from another group of Americans whom he disparages. When Trump promises to “take back” the country that Obama has “given away,” he is proclaiming that America is a finite commodity that cannot be shared with foreigners, people of color, or anyone else who encroaches upon some kind of presumed birthright. Such a distorted understanding of civic life has inflicted, and will continue to inflict, incalculable and lasting damage to our body politic. And unlike the situation with Covid-19, we may never develop a vaccine against, or a cure for, ignorance and malice.