I was going to title this "Much Ado About Just A Little," but wanting at least one or two folks to take a look, I thought better of it. But the title would be quite apt, I thought. Until I finished writing it. Turns out, there was a bit more here than I first thought, at least as a point of departure for further reflection.
I've looked at all the presidential electoral maps from 1896 to 2004, analyzed how many contiguous regions the states won by each party's candidates fall into, and come to the conclusion you'd expect, if you thought about it: the losers' states are more fragmented than the winners.
But I hope that putting so much work into it will at least yield a moment or two's reflection on the seemingly obvious to carry something of value away. And if you'd like to see how that hope turns out, then join me over the flip.
Okay, the logic first, then the mechanics, then the results, then the reflection.
Got it? Good. Let's go!
I got to thinking about the whole "red state/blue state" thing, and my knowledge that the states were roughly reversed from their 1896 alignment--1896 being the big "realigning election" from just over a century ago. And I started wondering about how the blocks of states had shifted around over time.
The logic of this was quite simple: I wanted a way to put our current situation into some kind of historical context, a way to back up a bit and look at our recent "red state/blue state" map through more objective eyes. Without any preconceptions about what it would tell me, I just wanted a different perspective, to see if it might shake loose some ideas.
I decided to start with 1896, because (a) it was an historically significant election and (2) shortly after that all the territories went away, leaving 48 contiguous states.
After a moment or two's reflection, I said to myself, "Hey, why make it so hard, when there's no obvious reason to? Why not just look at contiguous regions?"--Meaning, blocks of states that border one another.
In the simplest case--only looking at the lower 48 contiguous states--all the Democratic states are in one block, each bordered by at least one other Democratic state, and all the Republican states are in another block, each bordered by at least one other Republcan state. For simplicity sake, I thought of this as the basic, or "zero state," so instead of counting 1 contiguous block for each side, I decided to subtract one from the total number of blocks.
Thus, in 1964, when Barry Goldwater won 5 Southern states plus Arizona, that counted as 1, and LBJ won everything else--with Florida isolated by the 5 Southern states Goldwater won--that counted as 1 as well, for a total of 2.
There were just two complicating factors: the Great Lakes and the territories before 1912. I decided to treat blocks separated by territories as "semi-contiguous" for a value of 0.5. And I decided--somewhat arbitrariy--to treat none of the states across the Great Lakes from each other as contiguous except for Michigan (in light of the Upper Penninsula) and Minnesota.
I then calculated the total blocks, as well as the number of blocks for all candidates who won one or more state, and the difference between the winner and loser of the major national parties. (In 1912, the Bull Moose Party took second place, otherwise it was always Democrat or Republican.)
Tot Win Lose 3rd 1st-2nd
1896 1 1 0 1
1900 1.5 0.5 1 -0.5
1904 0 0 0 0
1908 0.5 0 0.5 -0.5
1912 4 0 3 1 -3
1916 4 1 3 -2
1920 0 0 0 0
1924 0 0 0 0
1928 1 0 1 -1
1932 2 0 2 -2
1936 1 0 1 -1
1940 3 0 3 -3
1944 3 0 3 -3
1948 5 1 3 1 -2
1952 1 0 1 -1
1956 0 0 0 0
1960 7 4 3 -1
1964 2 1 1 0
1968 7 3 4 -1
1972 0 0 0 0
1976 5 1 4 -3
1980 3 0 3 -3
1984 0 0 0 0
1988 5 2 3 -1
1992 6 3 3 0
1996 4 2 2 0
2000 5 1 4 -1
2004 2 0 2 -2
Avg: 2.6 0.7 1.8 1.0 -1.1
What we see is totally unsurprising: the winning party has just over 1 less contiguous block on average than the losing party. There were only two election in which the winning party had more contiguous blocks than the losing party--1896 and 1960. This is unsurprising for two reasons:
(A) The purely mathematical reason: The winning party usually will win more states. The party winning the most states will be less likely to have them split up into smaller blocks.
(B) The cultural/political reason: American national politics have always been regionally based to a large extent. Both parties have tended to encompass both liberal and conservative tendencies--unlike most other industrial democracies--but with fairly stable geographic core areas, where they have been politically dominant for decades at a time--or, for the Democratic Party in the South, for a period of over 150 years.
Because of this, it makes sense that parties rise to power by expanding their appeal beyond their regional cores, and fragmenting their opposition into disparate blocks who have less in common that holds them together, but are primarily united in what they're against.
Of course, our recent history is anomalous in at least two ways: First, the rise of mass electronic media, from radio networks through broadcast tv, then cable, and now the internet, has reduced (though hardly elminated) the capacity to specifically regionalize campaigns. Second, the parties are more ideologically homogeneous than they have been in a very long time. Whether these factors will outweigh commonalities with the past is anyone’s guess.
But the contiguous states lens helps to remind us that we are not divided into coastal elites vs. the heartland: this account totally ignores the Democrat’s significant Great Lakes presence. And this sort of division is not all that uncommon in our history. Nor is it uncommon for maps to change significantly between periods of relative stability. The relatively unified winning blocks that Bush II had contrast sharply with the fragmented blocks assmbled not just by Clinton in 1992 and 1996, but by Bush I in 1988 as well. And this, in turn, followed 4 straight elections in which the winning blocks totalled just one excess contiguous block.
Indeed, the winners’ number of contiguous blocks is a very crude measure, varying only between 0 and 1 in every single election between 1896 and 1956—a period in which control of the presidency changed party hands four times. Compared to that long run, our recent maps hardly seem set in stone. Indeed (forgetting Florida entirely) if Gore had eeked out a win in New Hampsire in 2000 (as Kerry did 4 years later), Gore would have won with 3 excess contiguous blocks, while Bush lost with none—something entirely unprecedented.
My point is simple: This somewhat unorthodox, but hardly exotic way of looking at electoral maps both confirms conventional wisdom at one level: the dominance of a geographically broad unified base is a strong indicator of electoral success, and undercuts conventional wisdom at another: the supposed stability of the GOP’s red state dominance is purely illusory.
What emerges as more stable, however, is the basic fact of contiguous state block voting. The exact configuration of such blocks may vary greatly over time, but the blocks themselves persist. Winning isolated states is far less significant than expanding the size of existing blocks, which in turn can depend on developing regional thematic appeals.
A Parting Thought
I conclude with a final reflection that is purely speculative at this point: If the GOP has a lock on most of the South (which an Edwards candidacy could disturb somewhat) this is arguably not the case elsewhere. As one indication, it’s quite conceivable that if Kerry had responded quickly and vigorously to the Swift Boat Liars attack, he could have won in 2004, not by winning Southern states, but by escaping the "effete New England liberal" label. The question for 2008 is how can a Democrat capitalize on the negative residue of the Bush years, not by simply running negatively against it, but by creating a contrasting positive.
One possible answer echoes a tact that Kerry himself should have taken to disarm the largely specious attacks on him as a flip-flopper: emphasizing flexibility as both a sign of strength and source of stability: like a tree with strong roots, outward flexibility is a key to longevity and perseverence. Properly articularted, such a theme has great potential in the Great Plains, and the Mountain West as well as the Mississippi River-bordering states that Clinton won in 1996, but Kerry lost in 2004. All these states have physical rural roots that resonate with such a message, as well as long-term state-level cultural and economic history that resonates as well. This stands in sharp contrast with the relative inflexibility and intolerance of the GOP’s Southern base.
This is, of course, a purely speculative suggestion at this point. But something of this sort is precisely what Democrats ought to be thinking about now: developing cultural images and associations that have regional resonance differing from that which the GOP’s Southern base demands—and that provide a foundation for the sorts of policy innovations that actually produce results.