The Blog

Jay Cost on Obama's Concentration Problem

Must reading.

4:15 PM, Aug 4, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Recently Michael Barone pointed out that President Obama has a concentration problem:

Democrats have too many seats that are heavily Democratic—or, to put it another way, Democratic voters are heavily concentrated in too few House seats. The reasons are mainly demographic: areas with large black, Hispanic, and (to use Joel Kotkin’s term) gentry liberal populations are more heavily Democratic than any correspondingly sized part of the country is heavily Republican.

This gives the Republicans a structural advantage in the House of Representatives -- an advantage that will help them rack up seats in November.

Today, Jay Cost makes a similar point about President Obama's geographic appeal:

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. This makes his coalition the most one-sided of any on the above maps. 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.

Voting input inevitably determines policy output, and these maps hold the key to Reich's disappointment with the President. 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?

Liberals conflated their outsized enthusiasm for Obama with the country's more general disgust with the Bush administration and desire for change in the midst of a punishing recession and two unpopular wars. And even that disgust, pronounced as it was, was not enough to prevent John McCain from capturing 46 percent of the vote. Now, as independents abandon Obama and conservatives and Republicans rally at the barricades, liberals wonder why Obama didn't do more to, as Robert Reich puts it, "extend" the "limits of politics." Obama couldn't do that because he's just a man -- a highly intelligent and appealing man, to be sure, but just a man who willingly is held captive by an ideological and partisan congressional leadership. He'll pay the price in November.

But Cost's article also raises problems for Republicans. Because the fact is, if Obama had decided to go for the McCain voters in 2009, he could have severed the Republican party and built a solid floor of support even as the economy trembled beneath him. To go after those voters, he probably would have had to embrace a stimulus that relied not on payroll tax credits, but extensions of 2009 tax rates for several  years and cuts in the corporate and payroll rates. To go after the McCain voters, he probably would have had to embrace a smaller health care plan that contained plenty of the best ideas Republicans have to offer while expanding SCHIP and COBRA. He would have had to ignore the climate and immigration stuff and focus instead on boosting American enterprise through policy and rhetoric.

He did none of that, of course, and so we are where we are. But none of this means Obama can't govern from the center beginning in 2011. And are Republicans prepared for that?

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers