Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Where the Race Will Be Won, Part 3

With the Democratic Convention in Denver, we can’t fail to do a post on Colorado and its role in the campaign. The New Yorker just posted a fantastic overview of Colorado politics—focusing on the Democratic gains of recent years—by Ryan Lizza.

Rather than devote this post to the entire state—and I will devote more time to Colorado over the coming weeks—I wanted to make note of one particular part that may prove important in November. The other night, amidst all the droning of commentators during the convention coverage, Chuck Todd pointed to Pueblo as the one city he will be looking to as key. I thought I’d take a look at its recent history and demographics.

Pueblo is unusual when compared to most other western cities in that it has a long industrial history, centered around steel production. Lizza quotes Jim Carpenter, Governor Bill Ritter’s Chief of Staff who calls Pueblo “a rare sort of Western city whose politics are closer to those of a Rust Belt state than to those of the Rockies. It’s an old traditional blue-collar type of place. There were ethnic politics in Pueblo, blue collar politics. It was like Milwaukee. There was the Hispanic part of town, and the Italian part of town, and the Eastern European part of town.” The interesting thing about Pueblo is that it’s not only so different from the rest of the state but that it seems to be on a different trajectory. Whereas other Colorado cities are diversifying and thriving in the areas of green energy, the tech sector, and tourism/hospitality, Pueblo appears somewhat rooted in a more anachronistic economy. Nonetheless, given that it is still home to a sizable population (slightly over 100,000) its vote could prove crucial.

Demographically, Pueblo County is about 57% white and 38% Hispanic. Unlike some Hispanic communities that are filled with recent immigrants, the Hispanic community in this region tends to be multi-generational in its residence. This rootedness is personified in Democratic Congressman John Salazar whose family has farmed in the area for decades (he is also the brother of the state’s junior Senator, Ken Salazar). Given its working class population, the Pueblo area has been solidly Democratic in recent elections. Pueblo County last voted Republican at the presidential level in 1972. However, in 2004, Bush did better in the county (46%) than any Republican nominee since Reagan in 1984 so there has been some tightening.

One wonders whether this movement rightward has been a reflexive action in response to the leftward movement of other parts of the state. If so, this dynamic could prove troublesome to Obama. In this sense, the comparison of Pueblo to many Rust Belt cities would seem apt. As we saw in this year’s primary campaign, those areas hardest hit by the past decade’s economic changes (Ohio, Michigan) have proven to be resistant to—or at least more skeptical of--Obama’s post-materialist message. While he is certainly moving in a more populist direction, this rhetoric threatens to diminish his appeal to more independent and upscale voters. As Lizza’s portrait of Colorado makes clear, these voters’ (upscale, highly educated, pragmatic) numbers are growing dramatically, not just in Colorado but throughout the west. Thus, a quandary—how does one thread the needle of attracting both old style, blue collar voters and upscale progressives?? A dilemma like this can turn a campaign in knots.

While the Obama campaign is trying to craft a strategy to solve this riddle nationwide, we’re also seeing it played out at the more micro-level within Colorado itself. What’s fascinating is that the underlying mathematics and demographics are so precarious. So many states and regions would seem to be on the tipping point of this transition from one type of economy and politics to another—Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina for example (a process that forms the basis of The Emerging Democratic Majority). The degree to which Obama is successful in navigating these straits will go a long way in telling us who the next President will be.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Rise of the Black Politician in America

Appropos of some of my recent posts on the Congressional Black Caucus and the Great Migration, yesterday's lengthy Obama piece by David Maraniss in the Washington Post included this fantastic graphic to show the evolution of the black membership in Congress.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Where the Race Will Be Won, Part 2

The state that has been getting the most coverage over the course of the campaign has been Virginia. Long in the Republican column (Virginia last voted Democratic in 1964), recent Democratic successes statewide (Jim Webb, Tim Kaine, Mark Warner) have many bullish about Obama’s chances this year. For a good analysis of the state of play in Virginia, see this recent piece by Jay Cost in Real Clear Politics. While Democratic successes have largely been fueled by dramatic demographic shifts in northern Virginia over the past decade or so, another part of the state will be pivotal to both candidates' chances in November.

The cluster of cities located in the southeastern corner of the state, known as Hampton Roads, offers both Obama and McCain tremendous opportunities. A few weeks back, the Washington Post did a story on the region and how competitive it has become. Before running through what each hopes to accomplish here, a brief description of the region’s economy, demographics, and political history is in order.

With a population of over 1.5 million, this area is a collection of contiguous cities—Norfolk, Newport News, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Hampton, and others—situated around one of the nation’s largest port areas. This area offers large numbers of people in some of the most important groups to both candidates--veterans, African Americans, labor/blue collar workers, seniors, and college students. The port of Norfolk is the country’s third largest in terms of shipping traffic. As one would imagine, the economy of the region is dominated by the movement of goods in and out of this waterway. A second characteristic of the region is that it has a huge military presence, with over a dozen military installations, especially Navy, located here. Thus, one finds one of the country's largest concentrations of veterans here. Estimates suggest that over 400,000 people have some direct connection to the military (retired veteran, active duty, family member, etc.) with thousands more working in an economy fueled by military dollars.

In terms of racial composition, Hampton Roads has a very large African American population. The following represents the black/white %'s of the major cities:

Virginia Beach: 19/71%

Chesapeake: 29/67%

Newport News: 39/54%

Norfolk: 44/48%

Hampton: 45/50%

Portsmouth: 51/46%

With the tremendous diversity of the region one has also seen political competitiveness. When breaking down the area into its component cities, one notices how both parties have fared well. In 2004, for example, John Kerry won Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, and Newport News (62%, 61%, 57%, and 52% respectively) while Bush captured Virginia Beach--the largest city--and Chesepeake (59% and 57%). For election returns, see here. In the 2005 governor's race, won by Democrat, and Obama-VP shortlister Tim Kaine, all six of the major cities noted above went Democratic (see results here). The area is currently divided between two congressional districts with part falling in the 2nd district, represented by Republican Thelma Drake, and part falling in the 3rd, represented by Democrat Bobby Scott.

From this, both Obama and McCain have goals and strategies in Hampton Roads. For McCain, capitalizing on the large veteran/military vote is crucial. If recent trends continue, McCain will probably lose northern Virginia by a sizable amount. In order to win the state, he will have to do well here. Even though he should win rural Virginia by large margins, Hampton Roads is the largest population center outside of the D.C. suburbs. McCain might also hope to tap into the blue collar part of the electorate that is normally Democratic. Should he be able to sway these voters due to his biography/military record or "maverick" image, or gain votes due to a hesitancy to support a black candidate, McCain could do quite well here. For Obama, the goal is obviously to capitalize on the large black population of the region and to maximize its turnout. While there is considerable debate about how easy this will be, Obama's organizational machinery seems far more advanced than that of any recent Democratic candidate. Also, as the Washington Post story notes, there is a large student population--in the neighborhood of 70,000--that will be targeted.

So, as Virginia continues to get attention in the weeks ahead, this is the part of the state that I would focus on. Both candidates will be fighting hard here. Obama have a greater need to overperform here than McCain, given the state's history, but both candidates can rightly look here for the keys to the state's 13 electoral votes.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Where the Race Will Be Won, Part 1

In the weeks leading up to the November vote, I want to periodically identify some places and regions whose performance, in my mind, will go a long way toward explaining the final outcome. While a discussion of “swing states” is commonplace, I want to go a bit deeper and into more detail by focusing on places whose demographics, history, socio-economic makeup, etc. make them illustrative of some of the larger dynamics playing out in the campaign. These areas will either be 1) extremely competitive or 2) crucial to one candidate’s base. In the former, both candidates will by vying to capture an electorate that’s up for grabs. In the latter, either McCain or Obama will be trying to maximize turnout, perhaps beyond that seen in previous contests. Some of these places will be in “swing states,” others may not be if they present a version of a much larger story.

I want to start with an area very close to where I grew up. Wisconsin has over the past several elections proven to be the mother of all swing states. Although it has voted Democratic from 1988 through 2004, the margins have always been quite slim. There are certain parts of the state where Democrats always do well (Milwaukee, Madison, and Mississippi River counties) and parts that are Republican strongholds (Milwaukee suburbs, Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties). At left is the 2004 presidential race results, with Democratic counties in red, Republican in blue.

There is one part that is becoming increasingly important, in my mind, for either party’s candidate. Essentially, the 30 miles that connect Appleton and Green Bay has become extremely competitive, based on recent contests and trends. Colloquially known as the “Fox Cities,” this region has historically been Republican territory although over the past few cycles it has been trending Democratic. I just did a large number crunch of the region so let me throw some data out to illustrate what I mean.

In the 2000 and 2004 presidential races, Bush won both Brown (Green Bay) and Outagamie (Appleton) Counties. Brown County went 51% and 55% in ’00 and ’04 respectively while Outagamie went 55% and 53% Republican. In the most recent Governor’s race, however, things tightened up a bit. This is of note because the Republican candidate in the ’06 race was the incumbent congressman, Mark Green, who represented the district since his election in 1998. Thus, we would have expected him to do extremely well in his backyard. Despite this, he narrowly won Brown County (50%/48%) while actually losing Outagamie by two points. Furthermore, 2006 saw the election of Democrat Steve Kagen to the House seat vacated by Green. Up until ’06, the 8th district had only been held by a Democrat for one term over the previous thirty years. Kagen’s victory, although very narrow (51%/49%) in my mind signaled that something might be changing in this part of the state—especially in its two largest cities. In the city of Appleton for example, Kagen beat his opponent, former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker John Gard, by 16 points. He also had a ten point margin of victory in Green Bay proper. The moderately sized city of Kaukauna, recently visited by Barack Obama (see this previous post), gave Kagen a 28 point margin of victory. Charlie Cook currently gives the 8th district a PVI rating of D+0. Thus, while this area is historically Republican, it seems to be very much in flux.

Demographically, this area is overwhelmingly white and very Catholic. It has both a strong streak of social conservatism while also a good dose of isolationism. There is a labor presence in Green Bay and a large paper making industry in the Kaukauna area. An old version of the “Almanac of American Politics” describes the area thusly:

This is a heavily German Catholic area; it went for John Kennedy in 1960 and came fairly close to going for Jimmy Carter in 1976. It seemed to react against the military policies of the Vietnam era and against the cultural liberalism of the Carter administration.

For Obama to win Wisconsin, he doesn’t necessarily need to win this area. Other Democrats have won Wisconsin by running up huge margins in Milwaukee and Madison and doing moderately well elsewhere. However, should he win these two counties, I’d expect him to win Wisconsin with a margin significantly larger than Kerry or Gore got. For McCain, though, he must win here. This string of cities traditionally sits at the northern tip of counties, running northward from the Milwaukee suburbs (and through Fond du Lac and Winnebago Counties) that are crucial for the Republicans’ success statewide. Should McCain under perform in this changing part of what I’d call Wisconsin’s “Republican Corridor”, he won’t win the state.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Could We Ever See an "Inverse-Cohen" Dynamic???

As I was reading and writing about yesterday’s House primary in Tennesse, and the unusual racial dynamic that ran through it—Congressman Steve Cohen is the only white member of Congress representing a majority black district—I thought I’d explore whether or not a similar dynamic could happen, only in reverse. In other words, among the African American membership in Congress, how many of them represent districts with sizable white or Hispanic populations? Could challengers emerge among these groups arguing that they are a “better fit” for the constituency?

There are currently 40 African American voting members of the House (not counting D.C. and the Virgin Islands). I broke down their constituencies to look at the size of the white, black, and Hispanic population. What do we find???

Back during the 90’s when a wave “racial gerrymandering” created districts designed to elect more African Americans to Congress, it was assumed that these districts’ composition would be overwhelmingly black. In reality, the black proportion of each district is not as high as we might think. Across these 40 members, the district averages are: 49% African American; 33% white; and 13% Hispanic. No House district is more than 65% black (IL-01: Bobby Rush). Another nine are between 60% and 65% black.

Overall, we see a much more nuanced constituency composition:

24 are Majority African American
7 are Plurality African American
4 are Majority white (Andre Carson: IN-07; Emanuel Cleaver: MO-05; Keith Ellison: MN-05; Gwen Moore: WI-04)
2 are Plurality white (Barbara Lee: CA-09; David Scott: GA-13)
3 are Plurality Hispanic (Charles Rangel: NY-15; Laura Richardson: CA-37; Maxine Waters: CA-35)

Despite this relative diversity, we do not find a membership that is in much electoral jeopardy. These are all Democratic House members and have, for the most part, very safe seats. Across the 40 members, the average vote percentage in 2006 (plus 2 special elections this year—Carson and Richardson) was 83.5%. 12 members were unopposed in 2006. Overall, only 3 received less than 60% (Carson—54%; Ellison—56%; William Jefferson of Louisiana’s 2nd got 57% despite a pending indictment and Louisiana’s special runoff elections).

So, if we are to hypothesize about the feasibility of a strictly racially based opposition to these members, there are a handful of members who could be vulnerable. However, the challenge will have to be in the primary given how overwhelmingly Democratic these seats are. Given what we saw yesterday in Tennessee, though, we can be thankful that such base appeals to voters seem to be bearing very little fruit. While the advantages of incumbency are certainly at work here, voters in House races seem to be increasingly willing to vote for candidates of other races.

Cohen Wins Big in TN-09

Despite the racial and religious appeals by challenger Nikki Tinker, Congressman Steve Cohen was overwhelmingly renominated in the TN-09 Democratic primary yesterday. Cohen captured 79% to Tinker's 19%.

See coverage here and results here.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Things Getting Ugly in TN-09 Primary

Thursday brings with it an extremely interesting Democratic House primary in Tennessee's 9th district. A little history is in order to understand the dynamics at play in the contest. The 9th, which is made up solely of the city of Memphis, is 60% African American, and from 1972-2007 was represented by a member of the Ford family--most recently Harold Ford Jr. and prior to that his father, Harold Sr. When Ford the younger gave up the seat in 2006 to launch his unsuccessful Senate bid, the overwhelmingly Democratic district law a primary contest of monumental proportions. As is almost always the case in such lopsided districts, the primary winner became the de facto congressman.

The '06 primary had a roster of 14 African American candidates, plus one white candidate, State Senator Steve Cohen. As one would have predicted, the black vote was split, allowing Cohen to win with 31% of the vote (for a good rundown of the race, see here). The aftermath of the race revealed some dicey racial dynamics, both in the district, and in Washington. Cohen applied to become a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and was denied entrance. Despite his overwhelmingly liberal voting record--which went back through 24 years in the Tennessee State Senate--and a good working relationship with the black community--many in the 9th feel that Cohen is a "poor fit". He is one of only two white House members representing majority-black districts.

With the primary vote approaching, things have gotten increasingly nasty. Cohen's main opponent is Nikki Tinker, the runner up in the '06 primary. Her recent television commercial has been widely condemned by the Memphis media establishment (see coverage here, and the ad here). With primaries typically marred by low turnout, it will be interesting to see how things play out. I'll report the results and available data Friday.
**Update: A new Tinker ad on the air, with coverage here.
**Update: Track coverage of the race with the Memphis Commerical Appeal