Fifty Shades of Purple – Blue States Are American, Too
One thing that was not deeply discussed in last night’s Leaguecast is that this election demonstrates that the GOP is at a huge structural disadvantage in the Electoral College, as it racks up huge – and increasing- margins of 15 points or more in the Southeast, Great Plains, and parts of the Mountain West, but loses by 5 to 15 points in most of the rest of the country, which it writes off as “Deep Blue.” In 2004, George W. Bush won the popular vote by 2.4 percent, fairly comparable to President Obama’s current 2.7 percent edge in this year’s election; despite this, Bush squeaked by with only 286 electoral votes, with a razor-thin margin in Ohio being the sole reason he held the Presidency, while Obama has been able to win with a comfortable 332 electoral votes in a terrible economy. Even without winning Ohio and Florida, President Obama still would have been reelected.
One of the narratives that has been consistent amongst conservatives since the 2000 elections, and which has only gotten stronger as time has gone on, is that the country effectively consists of “Red States” and “Blue States,” with a few “Purple” states that are presumed to be “Red” in their hearts in the middle. This is a particularly virulent narrative – Blue States are viewed as, effectively, Europe, only half jokingly referred to as “People’s Republics,” while Red States are held out as being “Real America.”
Yet there are successful Republicans in state and local politics in “Deep Blue” states. Unfortunately, they are ignored or dismissed as a possible model for increasing the party’s national competitiveness because they are viewed as being insufficiently conservative. Perhaps it is assumed that the success of these politicians is a fluke, or that these politicians are RINOs; regardless, conservatives’ interest in these politicians is limited to how well they serve the national conservative narrative, without any regard for how they actually govern or what that governance might teach conservatives elsewhere.
Especially demonstrative of this is the bizarre outrage over Chris Christie’s favorable comments about President Obama’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Christie’s response to Sandy has been nothing short of outstanding, remarkably well-received by New Jerseyans throughout the state, and, most importantly, doing real good to help countless thousands of people who have been absolutely devastated by the storm. He has been decisive and consistently engaged throughout, making sure the recovery phase of the storm has been well-coordinated and, as importantly, well-communicated to his constituents. The quality of his response is only made starker in reference to the painfully slow, tedious, chaotic and still-ongoing recovery in Staten Island, Long Island, Brooklyn, and Queens. Even his glowing comments about Obama served an immediate and significant purpose in all of this, beyond currying favor with someone having the power to dramatically impact the quality of the response to the storm: they allowed Christie to become a rallying point and a unifying figure for the entire state at a time when unity of purpose is exactly what the state needed.
This is good governance in its truest form, and should be an example of how conservatives can provide valuable leadership that does citizens worlds of tangible and immediate good, rather than just serving far off theoretical goals*. A conservative movement or national GOP interested in governing the entirety of this vast country would have held Christie’s response out as a reason to support Republicans across the board, as something worth bragging about; indeed, without Christie’s mammoth efforts to restore a modicum of fiscal responsibility to this state over the last 3 years, I’m not even sure a strong response by the state would have been possible here. But instead of lionizing Christie, conservatives lambasted him for his praise of Obama’s own response to the storm and for failing to take time from that response to attend a last-minute Romney campaign rally; they also bizarrely complained about the lack of country singers at the Sandy benefit concert and cried about debunked stories about workers being turned away from relief operations due to being non-union.**
The message sent by such actions is clear: conservatives care about Red States, and Red States only; the rest of the county can go fish itself. Needless to say, it’s difficult to win in states that you’ve effectively written out of the country.
This is, to say the least, a huge mistake. For all the discussion about the GOP’s growing demographic problem (which is real), that problem is relevant for purposes of Presidential elections only insofar as it prevents Republicans from winning so-called swing states. The GOP’s real problem, then, is that increasingly the old “swing states” are becoming relatively safe for Democrats (with some now even regarded as “Deep Blue” and unworthy of any effort), while states that in the not so distant past were solidly Republican have become swing states. To be sure, Missouri is an exception to this, having gone from swing state in 2000 to solid GOP state in 2008 and 2012. Tennessee and Arkansas have also moved in this direction, although given the relationship of Al Gore and Bill Clinton to those states, their “swing state” status in 2000 was artificial.
The states that have gone the opposite direction are myriad. In 2000, 22 states – almost half the country – were decided by less than 10 percentage points, 16 of these were decided by less than 6 points, and 10 (not including Tennessee) were decided by less than 4. George Bush won 12, 7, and 5 of these states, respectively. If he had lost any one of those states, he would have lost the election.
- Virginia has gone from a solid GOP state (R+8) represented by two Republican senators to a leans Democratic state (D+3) represented by two Democratic senators.
- Pennsylvania, which prior to 2000 had been fairly Republican, has stayed basically steady at D+5, though it should be noted that it was not really contested this year until a desperate Romney ad blitz in the last week or the campaign. It is thus now generally viewed as being a fairly safe state for Democratic Presidential candidates.
- Florida remains a tossup state.
- New Mexico has gone from being a complete tossup in 2000 and 2004 (D+0 and R+0, respectively) to being a “Deep Blue” state (D+10).
- Wisconsin has gone from a tossup in 2000 (D+0) to a fairly safe Dem state in 2012 despite the presence of a native son on the GOP ticket (D+7).
- Iowa has gone from a tossup in 2000 (D+0) to a comparatively safe Dem state in 2012 (D+6).
- Oregon has gone from a tossup in 2000 (D+0) to being a “Deep Blue” state (D+11) in 2012.
- New Hampshire has gone from a tossup in 2000 (R+1) to a comparatively safe Dem state in 2012 (D+6).
- Minnesota has gone from a tossup in 2000 (D+2) to a safe Democratic, and almost “Deep Blue” state (D+8).
- Ohio has gone from a leans GOP (R+3) to a leans Democratic state (D+2 at the time of this writing, and likely to reach D+3 after all the votes are counted)
- Nevada has gone from a leans GOP (R+3) a comparatively safe Dem state in 2012 (D+6).
- Maine, Michigan, and Washington have gone from only leaning Democratic states highly sought by the GOP in 2000 (D+5) to Deep Blue states (D+15, D+9, and D+14, respectively).
- And last but not least, Colorado has gone from a safe GOP state (R+8) to a leans Democratic state (D+4).
The point here is to show that the notion that the US is divided between “Red States” and “Blue States” is hooey – states can and do switch their political loyalties dramatically in a comparatively short period of time. Even my own home state, the purportedly impenetrable Blue State of New Jersey was solidly Republican for most of my childhood, voting for George HW Bush in 1988 by over 14 points and going for Clinton in 1992 by only two points; it is one of the few states where it can be said safely that Ross Perot cost Bush electoral votes. Prior to that, it had been one of the most reliably Republican states in the country, having last gone for a Democrat in 1964.
Simply put, conservatives are now paying dearly for insisting that the GOP – and conservatism in general – must be about “Red State” values, and “Red State” values alone, and for discarding the tried and true mantra that “all politics is local.” Conservatives are losing ground not because conservatism is dying outside of the Southeast and Great Plains, but because they insist that the values of the Southeast and Great Plains are the only values that are truly “American.” Conservative values need not be defined by opposition to same-sex marriage, a “tough on crime” attitude, anti-abortion absolutism, though in some locales they surely can and should be so defined. After all, conservatism is supposed to be about “conserving” shared values and traditions, not about dictating to others what their values should be. Conservative values, at their core, are supposed to be about restraint and humility, about changing things to save them, not about eliminating disfavored values and traditions, and definitely not about resisting any changes whatsoever. The phrase “radical conservative,” after all, is supposed be an oxymoron, not a rallying cry.
To return to my earlier example, someone like Chris Christie is the type of person that should be embraced as the conservative he is, not disowned for saying things conservatives dislike. Before the storm, one can fairly interpret his actions as governor, from making difficult budget cuts to passionately defending a Muslim judicial appointee, as being an attempt to, well, conserve, the values and institutions of this state. That those values are not held by conservatives in other states should be irrelevant. What conservatives should find far more important is that Governor Christie, despite this being a purportedly “Deep Blue” state, is remarkably popular, and will be the decided favorite in his reelection campaign next year; even before the storm, his favorable rating had never fallen below his unfavorable rating, and had been fairly consistently around or above 50%.
Basically, what I’m saying is that, for the GOP to return to national relevance in short order, conservatives need to recognize and accept that “Red State” values aren’t national values, and that nothing could be less conservative than seeking to impose those values on the nation. Values questions should be state and local concerns, not national ones.***
*Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with having far off theoretical goals or promoting them; in fact, they’re completely necessary to any meaningful form of politics or government. It’s just that such goals, without more, don’t do much good when it comes to helping people who are suffering in the present. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: people vote for or against applications of theories, not theories themselves.
**These complaints, by the way, quite likely created a Streisand effect of sorts, exponentially increasing the amount of attention paid to the very comments that upset conservatives.
***It will be argued that the strategy I am proposing here is suicide for the GOP’s national aspirations, because it effectively requires that social conservatives give up any interest in pursuing their agenda on a national level, thereby alienating the GOP’s largest and most powerful constituency. No doubt, a good number of social conservatives will perceive such a strategy this way and will stop voting in such overwhelming numbers for the GOP. But here’s the rub: (1) this strategy leaves social conservatives free to push their issues as much as they wish on the local and state level (which is the only level where they can meaningfully succeed in any event), meaning that the most politically active social conservatives will continue to be the core of the GOP’s operations in much of the country; and (2) the GOP can afford to lose a substantial chunk of social conservatives from its coalition, as the overwhelming majority of strong social conservatives live in states where the GOP enjoys massive margins.