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.

1 comment:

Rays profile said...

All true enough, but there's an extra factor. (I'm a former news editor of a paper in the 8th, and covered the 2006 race). Gard, the former state Assembly speaker, wasn't all that popular outside his rural district (north of Green Bay). He was generally seen as a slickster who had "gone Madison," having married former state treasurer Cate Zeuske and spending almost all of his time in Madison while still billing himself as "a Peshtigo farm boy" in his ads. Kagen was a fresh face, something that seems to help in the 8th; the previous two Democratic winners were a priest/college professor and a former TV anchorman. This year, it's Gard-Kagen again, but the rough economy may actually work against Kagen; he may need extra Dem turnout sparked by Obama to win.