Saturday, December 17, 2011

Is the Game Already Over? (cont.)

Just after I wrote my first-draft mapping, state-by-state maps came out from Axelrod on the Democratic side and Rove from the Republican side. Axelrod crows about how many alternative winning maps there could be for Obama, outlining multiple strategies that can be pursued simultaneously. Rove acknowledges that much of what Republicans need to do is already locked in: he agrees that both Florida and Ohio, and both Virginia and North Carolina (along with Indiana, which Obama would have to be very lucky to hold), are absolute must-flips, and assume that every McCain state is a must-hold. Leaving Obama with the Navy and Baby Blues, plus Indigo minus Virginia, still makes 273, however, so Rove needs to identify one more pick-up. He targets Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire, saying any one would do. Technically, unless New Hampshire comes along with the Bangor district, alone it would only reach the dreaded 269-269 tie: media uproar, recount litigation in the closest state(s), dusting off constitutional tie-breakers last seen in Andy Jackson's day, perhaps ending with the House picking Gingrich but the Senate picking Biden.

But I would most strongly disagree with Rove about Pennsylvania, which I think is a microcosm of the national problem. The legacy of the Bush years has been polarization: people on the two sides do not look at the same news source, often know few people on the other side, and have largely given up arguing politics with those they do know, or don't get anywhere with such arguments. Who will people blame if the economic recovery remains anemic? Will they say "Obama inherited W's mess, and the GOP obstructs every attempt to fix it" or "He owns the economy by now, and his money-squandering, anti-business ways are killing us"? Mostly, whoever is saying one or the other now, next November will be saying the same; only a sharp dip back into recession or a growth spurt denting unemployment would shift this much. Nor will other issues: foreign policy is a minor plus for Obama, but only something ultra-dramatic (an Iranian nuclear test on the downside, or Israeli-Palestinian peace on the upside) would make many people care much. And on religious and social questions, nobody really changes their minds: the old die and the young take their place, and that's about it. So that leaves intangibles about candidate character and national mood: the messianic glow of Obama 2008 is long gone, but the Republican urgency to "take the country back" peaked in 2010; Obama would have to be very lucky to do as well as last time, but a few percentage points of "enthusiasm gap" are not going to shift many states. Pennsylvania is polarized between the deep-blue urban areas of "Phillyburgh" in the corners vs. "The T" elsewhere, deep-red to Confederate levels: statewide races have often been won by middle-of-the-roaders like the Caseys (former governor and current senator), Democrats but pro-life, or Republicans like former govenor Thornburgh and senator Spector, denounced as "RINOs" by Tea Partiers, with Spector defecting to the Democratic party at the end of his career. In the national race, however, there is going to be no middle, and most people who would say they are "undecided" are really only undecided about whether they will bother to vote at all, not which way they would go. A red-meat Republican candidate might spike turnout in The T, but equally draw more Phillyburghers to vote against him. The built-in edge for Obama is surely less than the 10% of last time, but would be extraordinarily hard to shift.

Note that Rove leaves Minnesota and Michigan off his target list: neither of those would be impossible, but the Republicans are only going to pick those up if they are already doing very well and picking up lots of others; similarly, Indiana and Missouri despite their razor-edge margins last time are not worth spending much time on, since Obama will only get those if he gets back to 2008 levels and is running away with the race. So, let me re-color the map, classifying with an eye to the upcoming race rather than the history. Move Wisconsin from Navy to Baby Blue, and New Mexico from Baby Blue to Pink; merge Gray into Purple, and divide up the Indigo regionally. Virginia belongs with the Purple, which now means the must-take states for the Republicans (96 votes), along with the Crimson must-holds (152). Omaha belongs with the Baby Blues: Iowa+Omaha, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire+Bangor are the plausible targets (22). Nevada and Colorado belong with Pink: that is the Rocky Mountain belt (if we call Alaska's mountains honorary Rockies, and delete the Crimson heart of Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming) where former Republican strength has ebbed (37). The GOP has to juggle every single Crimson and Purple plate, and not do too badly in Pink, in order not to need too much "offense" in Baby Blue.

This means, first of all, making up with retirees in Florida and Arizona, and Hispanics in the West generally. The GOP cannot win as the party which will throw Medicare grannies to the dubious mercy of the insurance companies, or as the party which pulls over brown people to ask if their papers are in order; to the extent they have already acquired those reputations, the candidate needs to spend time walking it back. To appeal to at least part of the Jewish vote in Florida, the GOP has already locked itself into opposing a two-state solution, although more and more are in favor of that: this is symptomatic of their problem with appealing to shrinking blocs of older voters while turning off the younger; Cubans whose primary concern is attacking Castro are an even more rapidly-vanishing breed. They have the same problem with their need to rouse the evangelics with some gay-bashing and abortion references. They must somehow combine this with some renewed appeal to "New South" voters, who are tired of hearing about social issues and are dubious about trickle-down economics. Nothing has so far been heard from any of the candidates which would really advance the must-accomplish goal of winning back both Virginia and North Carolina.

And a "Pure D" strategy which counts on recovering in Pink to the extent of one state (Colorado or Nevada; New Mexico is trending heavily against them) looks very unlikely for them (even assuming the Crimson+Purple assembly) given Pink regional trends. "Frontier libertarians" of the sort who only grudgingly allow that a government needs to exist are not necessarily reliable for the GOP anymore: Ron Paul on a 3rd-party ticket could peel away even more votes than last time, and if there is no such ticket, a lot of those votes may just stay home. Meanwhile, hostility from Hispanics, from voters who are not ultra-environmentalist but have seen worrisome amounts of clear-cut forest and poisoned trout streams, and from those who are repelled by the Colorado Springs fundamentalist broadcasters, are continuing negatives. Rove envisions at least holding more-or-less steady in the Pink (if no pick-up, at least no change; picking up Colorado or Nevada at the cost of dropping Montana, Alaska, or both has the same effect) so that only one Baby Blue is needed. But there are several minor-erosion scenarios in which neither Iowa nor New Hampshire would suffice, only both together or Wisconsin at least: dropping Montana, or Alaska, or both; or picking up Nevada at the cost of losing Arizona; or succeeding with North Carolina and Virginia but dropping a little oopsie from the Crimsons, like South Carolina or North Dakota, all make the arithmetic come out that way. Anything worse than this could only be compensated for with more "O" than is realistic to expect.

If some "offense" in the North is a must, can the GOP come up with a ticket and platform which blue-staters could view like, "OK, they're Republicans, but not *those* Republicans that have gummed everything up, and Obama hasn't really panned out, so let's give them a shot"? That doesn't seem to be in the cards anymore, because the red-staters have already decided to insist on one of *those* Republicans, even if it means forcing Romney into some of the most painful flip-flops of his whole career.

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