I recently read Sean Trende’s book The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs—and WhoWill Take It. Trende is the senior elections analyst at RealClearPolitics.com, and I look forward to reading his pieces every time I find them.
The book was a challenge for me. I’ve mentioned before I am not a strategist. My son Political Sphere recommended the book, and had a great time reading it, and a tough time waiting for me to get through to discuss it. I marked and typed up a lot of notes and quotes, and PS told me I’d probably get a month’s worth of blog posts out of this. But, there’s so much here, and I’m not schooled in adequately explaining the strategy. So, there will be more than this post, but I’m not sure how much I can portion out without saying, “Just go read the book.”
Trende is a data guy, and he delves deep into data, including some pretty old historical data that you’re not likely to read about in basic history texts. His main thesis in the book is that the whole idea of political cycles of 32 or 36 years (or any other arbitrary number) is false—more a matter of trying to get data to fit a formula rather than getting the formula from the data. So, if you have that in mind from whatever poli-sci class you took in college, he debunks that. (I had no such handicap; never took a poli-sci class, because I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that politics is a science.) He also argues that there are no permanent majorities.
I would like to say Trende has prognosticated in favor of my inclinations for the upcoming election. He finished writing this in early 2011, so a lot was yet unknown about this presidential campaign. So there are a lot of ifs involved. But he does cover quite a lot about the differences between 2008 and 2010.
Much of every election (ever recorded) Trende covers county by county to measure changes. And then he delves into reasons, the narrative behind the data. All of that together can get fascinating. Trende’s theory is that Reagan didn’t start a new coalition; he continued the one begun in the 1950s with Eisenhower, and that such a coalition for so many years is rare. The specifics show which constituencies joined together—constitutionalists, conservatives (in the broader sense of wanting to retain the status quo on particular issues), populists (constituencies who vote according to specific issues or groups), and geographical parts of the country. And that coalition more or less lasted until Clinton in 1992. Clinton's new coalition was formed mostly by power of personality; he was able to persuade disparate groups to hang together—iincluding more conservative constituencies when he saw the writing on the wall and took up welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act, and free trade, taking those things off the table for the GOP.
Clinton’s moderately centrist (in practice) coalition hung on through the Bush years; Bush was more centrist than much of the Reagan GOP would have liked, but that centrism was viewed as necessary to win elections while the Clinton coalition was prevalent. The House and Senate takeover by the Democrats in 2006 was more an assertion of the continuing Clinton coalition than a new direction. But a “coalition of everyone” is tentative at best. It pulls from areas that don’t normally lean that direction, so they tend to revert pretty regularly.
There’s a map on page 199, comparing counties where each of the two parties won at least once, from 2002 and 2010; Trende has provided similar maps on previous pages for various time frames. And then he makes this observation:
The Democrats compete everywhere, while the Republicans win everywhere but the Deep South (and even win there a few times). This is what the world looks like when parties compete, and this is “typical” American history. The oscillations of the past few election cycles are not flukes; they are normal. It is the period between 1950 and 1980 that is the fluke.
In the conclusion of the book, he talks about the problems facing an Obama reelection; his coalition is much narrower than Clinton’s was. This assessment (pp. 201-202) is enlightening:
To many, Obama is still the avatar of hope and change that he was in late 2008, the Republicans are too marginalized to win, and the Democrats have a powerful, dominant majority in the offing.
Needless to say, these analysts are living in the past. As we’ve seen, it is not 2008 anymore. Obama’s coalition—borrowed from Bill Clinton—is in deep trouble. As president, Obama has done very little to expand his appeal past the voters who cast ballots for him in 2008; the transformational president who hoped for a new, broad majority has instead seen the Democratic coalition narrow. His approval ratings have been mired between 45 percent and 51 percent—they have fallen between those numbers on 95 percent of the days Gallup has polled since the beginning of 2010.
Even these tepid ratings demonstrate the depth and narrowness of his coalition. His approval rating for March 2011 was 47 percent. But it was a paltry 39 percent among whites. To put this in perspective, when Bill Clinton hit a similar 34 percent approval rating among whites in June 1993, his overall approval rating was 37 percent. The difference is that Obama maintains an 85 percent approval rating among African Americans, while Clinton’s approval among that group had fallen to 61 percent in 1993. Again, this is not to say that black votes don’t count equally. It is just to observe that Obama’s approval rating owes to his unusual strength among core Democratic groups, rather than to his broad appeal.
This presents a problem for the president going into 2012. A 51 percent approval rating—the high end of Obama’s range—is typically enough to get a president reelected. But it does not leave much room for error. And the concentration of pro-Obama voters among core Democratic constituencies poses a unique set of problems. Minority voters tend to be concentrated in a few congressional districts and even in particular states. Many of these states, such as Mississippi, have heavily racialized voting patterns, where even unanimous approval ratings among African Americans would not be enough for Obama to overcome white opposition. To put it differently, 14 states have larger minority populations than the United States as a whole, and only three of these could really be considered “swing states”: New Mexico, Nevada, and Florida. In other words, if you could challenge state lines under the Voting Rights Act, there would be one heck of a vote dilution claim.
Do you know what PVI is? The extent of leaning toward one party or another (partisan voting index)? It’s a technical term I’m just learning, but I think understanding PVI is going to give us a better understanding about who believes what, and in what areas of the country. What we saw in 2008 wasn’t what we were told we saw, and that makes a difference in the future..