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Worse Than It Looks

The political landscape is not the same as it was in 2000. For Democrats, their situation is getting worse.

11:00 PM, Nov 8, 2004 • By DANIEL DISALVO and JAMES W. CEASER
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TWO CONTRASTING CONCLUSIONS can be drawn by comparing the famous Red-Blue divide on the electoral maps of 2000 and 2004. One is that there has been very little change in electoral patterns, the other that there was change of significant proportions. Thus far, most commentators have favored the first interpretation, but it is the second that better fits the new reality of American politics.

Proponents of the first view of the electorate argue that even with terrorist attacks, a recession, and two wars, the political alignment of 2000 remained nearly identical to 2004. As Harold Meyerson puts it, "the most overwhelming fact about the 2004 vote is how closely it resembles the 2000 vote." With the exception of New Hampshire, which switched to the Democrats, and Iowa and New Mexico, which shifted to the Republicans, the two parties won the same states as in 2000.

For Democrats the rough stability thesis is the most comforting interpretation of their defeat on November 2, as it maintains that the party is only slightly less well off than in 2000. The continuity of Red and Blue is also cited as evidence of an ongoing culture war in which neither side has apparently given much ground. Again, according to Meyerson, "The battle lines of the cultural civil war that emerged in the 2000 contest have shown themselves to be all but impermeable to even the most earthshaking events." In this view, the only important change in the Red-Blue divide is Bush's popular vote majority, which he failed to secure in 2000. The Republican edge is attributed mostly to increased turnout of evangelical voters in the Red states. The credit, if it can be called that, goes to Karl Rove's plan to mobilize the party's base of religious and social conservatives in rural and small town America. Although this account acknowledges a political defeat, it offers solace to Democrats by appealing to their sense of moral and intellectual superiority: Republicans are just what Democrats imagine them to be, perhaps even worse.

This view, which is rapidly becoming the conventional wisdom, misses some of the most important changes in the electorate. Beneath the apparent stability in Red and Blue states, some analysts have now begun to show that American voters moved markedly toward the Republican party. Bush increased his percentage of the vote in 45 states, and his gains were particularly impressive in many of the states that he lost. Blue America in 2004 is of a decidedly lighter hue than it was in 2000.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate this change, however, is not to focus on Bush's share of the vote, but instead to compare the percentage of the vote received by the Left Coalition of Gore-Nader in 2000 and Kerry-Nader in 2004. It is revealing to focus on this coalition, because it represents the real opposition to the Republican party. By this measure, if the electorate was as unchanged as many have suggested, the Kerry-Nader percentage of the vote in each state in 2004 should have equaled the Gore-Nader percentage in 2000.

But this was decidedly not the case. Although John Kerry received a larger share of the vote than Al Gore in 25 states, this masks the general decrease of the Left Coalition, which was often substantial. In only three states--most noticeably in Howard Dean's Vermont, but slightly in South Dakota and Wyoming, where the Left is at its weakest--did the score of the Left Coalition clearly increase between 2000 and 2004. Take, as one of the most conspicuous examples, John Kerry's home state of Massachusetts. Kerry slightly outpolled Al Gore. But this point is hardly as relevant since in 2000 Gore and Nader combined to receive 66 percent of the vote. Without Nader on the ballot in Massachusetts, Kerry was still only able to poll 62 percent--a notable decline, even with the added pull of a favorite son on the ballot. In New York, 64 percent of voters chose the Left coalition in 2000, while only 60 percent did so in 2004. There were instances of larger losses in other Blue states: Hawaii 8 points, Rhode Island 7 points, and in Connecticut and New Jersey 6 points each. Changes of this magnitude belie the notion of "stability" that Meyerson and others have advanced.

THE DECLINE of the Left Coalition was not restricted to the Blue states. In 17 of the 31 Red states this year, it lost anywhere between 2 and 6 percentage points. Alabama, Nebraska, West Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Arizona, comprising 47 electoral votes, witnessed at least a 4 percent decline in Leftist support. Because Nader's share in these states was generally small in both elections, these losses came almost entirely at the Democrats' expense.