The Magazine

Purple America

The country is really an even mix of blue and red.

Aug 16, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 46 • By MICHAEL ROBINSON and SUSAN ELLIS
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ON JUNE 1, Stephanie Herseth, a true-blue Democrat, won a special election for the lone House seat in the blood-red state of South Dakota. But in a state that gave George Bush 60 percent of its vote back in 2000, Herseth's win turns out to be the rule, not the exception. The two senators from South Dakota are also Democrats. Political "blue flu" infects both Dakotas. North Dakota also elects one House member along with its two senators. Again, all three are Democrats, even though Bush did even better in North Dakota than in South.

Two blood-red states. Six true-blue congressional Democrats. Not a Republican in sight. How can this be happening in a political environment that is assumed to be polarized state by state, region by region? The answer is that the assumption is wrong. The theory of red states versus blue states is about as wide of the mark as it is widely accepted.

From the Capitol dome, one can look east into blue Maryland. But Maryland has a red governor. One can look west and see a reddish Virginia; but Virginia has a bluish chief executive. Climb down from the Capitol and travel west by southwest, through the American version of the Red Belt. Let's see how far one can go into the Red Belt and still find blue governors. Travel down toward Tennessee: blue governor. Cross the Mississippi into Missouri: blue governor. Then take your pick: Kansas or Oklahoma--two longtime red states, both with recently elected blue governors.

Drive the Oklahoma panhandle into the Sun Belt, which for 40 years has been considered not just sunny but solidly Republican. And yet once-red New Mexico now has a very blue governor, Bill Richardson. End up in Arizona, what was once Goldwater country and is still color-coded bright red on The Map. Arizona also has a new governor who is blue. California is blue, so we won't, as the Californians say, go there. But even Valley Girls know that California just installed as chief executive Arnold Schwarzenegger--a man of many colors.

And what about the other blue states? Are they as faithless to their party as the red states we just visited? In a word, yes. Al Gore wound up winning only three states by 20 points or more: Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York. All three have Republican governors. In fact, New York has not elected a Democratic governor since Mario Cuomo in 1990; Massachusetts hasn't elected a Democrat to its top office since Michael Dukakis in 1986; Rhode Island hasn't elected a Democratic governor for 14 years. Indeed, seven of the ten states Al Gore won by the largest majorities all currently have Republican governors.

For those who prefer something a bit more systematic than a travelogue, we have checked all 50 states for loyalty to their color. Every state has at least three offices elected statewide: the governor and the two senators. A polarized state in a polarized nation, you might think, would commonly show all three officials either red or blue. Yet only 16 states have a political triumvirate that is monochromatic and matches the state's Campaign 2000 color. Thirty-three states fail the test; their statewide elected leadership is a mix of red and blue. The 50th state is unique. George W. Bush didn't break a sweat to win in hot and humid Louisiana in 2000, but in 2004 all three statewide leaders are Democrats.

SO MUCH FOR THE STATES. What about The People? The best way to answer that question is to ask them. No pollster with any sense would ask people whether they see themselves as polarized. Terminology like that is Greek to them. But pollsters do ask voters to describe themselves politically. The Pew Research Center has been doing just that for more than a dozen years.

Pew asks, "In general, would you describe yourself as very conservative, conservative, moderate, liberal, or very liberal?" In May of this year, a meager 5 percent labeled themselves "very conservative." The exact same percentage said "very liberal." Forty-one percent said "moderate." So there are four times as many moderates as "wingers"--right or left.

What about in years past? Consider the politically charged year of 1994, when Newt Gingrich rose from obscurity to become the first Republican speaker of the House in four decades. The numbers from 1994 are virtually identical with those from 2004. The wings accounted for 10 percent of the public at large; the moderate category contained 39 percent of the total. After ten eventful years, there's been no change in how and where the public positions itself. The watchword then and now is centrism.