The Rise of the Metro Republicans
How McCain, Romney, and Giuliani may redraw the red-blue map.
Feb 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 22 • By NOEMIE EMERY
Republican governors continued to win in big states like Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, and New Jersey, with a lot of bipartisan, crossover backing; but attention was fixed on the leaders of Congress, who all seemed to come from the sticks, with hair that looked to be cut not by Christophe but by Ma Kettle with a bowl in the parlor. Against this backdrop, it was no surprise that in the 1996 election--when a now deep-blue Bill Clinton faced laconic Bob Dole from the red state of Kansas--the outlines of the red and blue map of the 2000 election began to take shape. Clinton lost all the deep South, with the exception of Florida, while cleaning up in California and in the Northeast. The regional divide was intensified by the drama of Clinton's impeachment, which pitted the people appalled or embarrassed by Clinton's behavior against those titillated by it, or at least those who believed lying less sinful than being conservative. Forgetting conveniently that it was feminist Democrats who had perfected the art of pillorying conservative men on impropriety charges, Clinton's defenders ended by apologizing to Europe for the provincial mores of their embarrassing countrymen. The days of 1992, when Clinton still had an appeal to people named Bubba, and the elder George Bush had to be told to pretend to like pork rinds, now seemed like very old history. Then came the 2000 election, and George W. Bush and Al Gore.
On paper, both Gore and Bush seemed deceptively purple--one the son of a dirt-poor Tennessee senator, who had been raised in both Carthage and Washington; one the son of Connecticut Yankees, who had been taken to Texas at age two. But the two clans had then gone in different directions; the Gores embracing and melting into the eastern establishment, against which the younger George Bush rebelled. Republican governors--a diverse crew who had been highly successful in northern-tier venues--pushed the younger Bush forward as one of the best of their number, a reformer who had worked well with the Democrats in his state, and might have cross-cultural appeal. But to the blue states, he appeared a foreign and threatening figure, whose past life in professional sports and big oil won no respect and no allies, and whose references to God and redemption--religion had helped him overcome a drinking problem--aroused their contempt and their fear. The contrast was deepened in 2004, when Bush faced a genuine northeastern liberal, a billionaire by marriage who lived very well on his second wife's money, who skied in Sun Valley, lounged in a chateau brought over from England, and who, while Bush chopped brush in the rank heat of Crawford, Texas, windsurfed off Nantucket in brightly patterned shorts.
In the event, the results of the 2004 election were exactly the same as those of 2000, with a few small corrections that made the voting blocs still more monolithic: New Hampshire flipped to the Democrats, making the northern tier a long swath of azure; New Mexico and Iowa went to the Republicans, making the vast stretch of the heartland an unbroken sea of red. In fact, the real divide was less North vs. South or coastal vs. interior than urban vs. rural, the blue states often made so by their huge urban centers.
"There were stark differences between the largest metropolitan areas . . . and the rest of the country," Michael Barone noted after the 2000 election. Republicans suffered serious losses in the major metro areas but only small losses outside them. Most of the gains made by Clinton-Gore Democrats, he noted, could be accounted for by seven cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Washington. These metropolitan areas "were evenly split between Republicans and Democrats in the 1988 election, but gave Al Gore a 23 percent margin in 2000." Since the culture wars of the early 1990s, they have put a high floor underneath each political party, but also imposed a fairly low ceiling not too far above it that neither has been able to break through.
In both 1992 and '96, Clinton won by impressive electoral margins, but could not win 50 percent of the popular vote when running against two center-right rivals. George W. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 in what was essentially a statistical tie, and his 50.7 percent of the popular vote in 2004 was the highest since his father's triumph over Michael Dukakis, 16 years earlier. Clearly, a Metro Republican (or his counterpart, a Traditional Democrat), who could carry his party's core message while not viscerally antagonizing the other half of the country, would have the best chance of breaking the deadlock, and putting the rest of the map into play.