The Great Political Divides

Brothers Expound on the State of Regions

Posted March 12, 2007 at 4:45pm

Take a look at a colored presidential map from the 2000 and 2004 elections — blue for Democrats, red for Republicans — and you will see the inspiration for Earl and Merle Black’s new book, “Divided America.”

Solid red across the South and Mountains/Plains. Deep blue in the Northeast and Pacific Coast. Scattered blue and red around the Great Lakes.

How have the regions of the United States come to be so different in their political behavior, and what does it mean for the future?

The Blacks, twin brothers who are experts on Southern politics — their 2002 book, “The Rise of Southern Republicans,” won Washington Monthly’s annual Political Book Award — provide a thorough historical and demographic analysis to answer that question.

The basics of their book have been covered before — it won’t surprise most readers worth a hanging chad that white Protestants are prevalent in the South or that minorities overwhelmingly support Democrats — but the authors quantify those trends and explain the math behind Republican victories in 2000 and 2004.

“My brother and I have done an intensive study of Southern politics over more years than I care to remember, and we’ve always been interested in the rise of Southern Republicans,” Merle Black said in an interview. “We thought the most interesting thing at this point would be to look not only at the South, but to compare it with other regions of the United States.”

Though it won’t be released until later this month, “Divided America” was completed in early 2006, so it lacks discussion of the recent midterm elections, but Merle Black said the trends on which they based their book continued in 2006.

“The Democratic majorities in the strongholds got stronger,” he said. “There were two big switches in the House — the collapse of a huge Republican majority in the Midwest and the loss of Northeast Republican support.” He noted that 20 of the 30 House seats Democrats picked up in 2006 came from the Midwest and Northeast.

Merle Black, who teaches political science at Emory University in Atlanta (his brother teaches at Rice University in Houston), said he sees only one 2008 presidential candidate who could change the map by making inroads in the opposition party’s strongholds.

“It seems like the right time for Rudy Giuliani to be the Republican candidate,” he said. “He should be able to carry New Jersey, and maybe Rhode Island — there are a lot of Italian Catholics in Rhode Island. Pennsylvania would become very much in play for the Republicans.”

In 2004, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) carried New Jersey with 53 percent of the vote, Rhode Island with 59 percent and Pennsylvania with 51 percent.

On the Democratic side, Black does not think any of the presidential candidates will have much appeal in the South, but said that the nominee will “make a strong effort in Mountain states such as Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, especially if Giuliani isn’t the Republican candidate.”

As is made clear in the book and Black repeated in the interview, neither party’s strongholds make up a majority of the electoral college.

Under the current map, the Republican strongholds of the South and Mountain and Plains states contain 221 electoral votes. President Bush swept those regions in 2004. Kerry, meanwhile, swept the Northeast and Pacific Coast except for Alaska, giving him 194 electoral votes. That meant the election would be decided in the Midwest, with Bush needing only 46 of the region’s 120 electoral votes (38 percent) to give him 270 — and the White House.

Even this early in the 2008 Congressional cycle, it is clear that regional factors will continue to be important. Senate Democrats are zeroing in on the handful of Republican incumbents that remain in their strongholds (Oregon, Maine and New Hampshire) while Republicans look South (Louisiana).

As the authors look to the future, they see this regional, partisan gridlock continuing. “Unless momentous events, cataclysmic policy failures, and/or the nomination of a conspicuously flawed candidate give one party a decisive advantage, the close presidential power struggle will continue for the foreseeable future,” they conclude in the book.

So while “Divided America” may get political junkies excited for 2008, it won’t help party strategists sleep at night.

“We have two minority parties. There’s no majority out there,” Black said. “When you’ve got two minority parties, it’s tough to put together a strategy for victory.”