Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Michael Barone:
Forget Deep/Old South vs New/Upper South
In the Age of Obama,
it's "The South Atlantic" vs. "The Interior South"

Over at the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog, the free daily’s senior Political Anaylst Michael Barone parses the House roll call vote on the Waxman-Markey climate change bill – aka “cap-and-trade.” It’s a vote worth dissecting as it’s one of the first major roll calls of the Obama Administration where partisan solidarity took a back seat - especially on the Democratic side of the aisle - to economic worries back home.

Per his methods in his authoritative biennial guide, “The Almanac of American Politics,” Barone analyzes the vote geographically, digging into partisan breakdowns in various regions to examine how the vote played out, and to handicap the bill’s prospects in the Senate. (He’s skeptical, if it’s not amended, noting Democratic Senators such as North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, who voiced, and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, who Tweeted(!), their public skepticism of the bill’s potential burdensome economic impact on their constituents’ wallets.)

Barone still assigns regional monikers that bear a sort of charm redolent of an earlier era of political science: “The Germano-Scandinavian Midwest (IA, MN, WI).” Others are more contemporarily shrewd.

Barone updates the traditional “Deep South” vs. “Upper South” or “Old South” vs. “New South” dichotomies. In 2009, the Obama Era, Barone cleaves the coastal “South Atlantic (FL, GA, NC, SC, VA)” from the vast “Interior South,” limning a wide arc through what’s left of the Section across states of seemingly dissonant political traditions: from Appalachian West Virginia, through once decidedly “Upper South” Tennessee and Kentucky, snapping up the old Wallace/Thurmond redoubt and segregationist strongholds of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, onto western-tinged Oklahoma and Texas.

Roughly, Barone is drawing a distinction between the growing, suburbanizing states that Obama won, but George W. Bush took in 2000 (FL, VA, NC) and the rest of the South where population and incomes remains stagnant, and Democrats still struggle for traction.

Of course, these are only blunt designations. Barone’s “Interior South” includes bastions of educated Southern natives sprinkled with highly educated transplants, trend-setting metropolises like Austin, TX; Nashville, TN; and Lexington, KY that may one day overwhelm the Wacos and Memphises and Paducahs that keep those states conformably combined within the same category as West Virginia, Oklahoma and Mississippi.

And his “South Atlantic” includes South Carolina, once the most “Solid” of the “Solid South” in its Democratic partisan fervor and electoral expression of Southern Sectional defiance. (SC Dem presidential vote performance ranged from 1896-1944 spanned from 85%-98%.) But, the once-Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond impressed a durable Republican tradition when he switched parties back in the ‘60’s. The urbane Gov. Mark Sanford hails from a resort-dotted coast that’s the growing part of the state that gave an openly lesbian – if business friendly - Democratic Congressional candidate a respectable vote total in 2008. Sanford’s Coastal Carolina taste in genteel plantations and “exotic” Argentine paramours contrasts with the Up Country, South Carolina’s “Interior South,” where Mike Huckabee’s blend of social conservatism and economic populism played better.

Georgia is a sort of awkward fit in this column, too; something of a lagging indicator. Atlanta’s ‘burbs are driving demographic shifts at play in Virginia and North Carolina, but the Peach State’s Republicanism bloomed later than that of other Southern states, possibly retarded by Favorite Son Jimmy Carter’s legacy. Nevertheless, Obama scored the highest raw Dem vote total ever here, and snared the biggest share of Georgia’s popular vote since “that peanut farmer” bested Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

But, Barone needed to hammer these circled squares into contiguous clusters. And, I-95 is useful as a spine that conjoins “The South Atlantic.” If trends in Tennessee and Texas continue apace, and Georgia’s and South Carolina’s still lollygag along, Barone may have to engage in his own creative Reapportionment.

But, for 2009, Barone’s updated distinction between “The South Atlantic” and “The Interior South” offers a more-than-serviceable thumbnail snapshot of an ever-changing Southern political landscape.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The "Social Issue," Crime, and Inner Cities--Are They Still Important???

Some seemingly random, but I think connected, thoughts on crime, urban life, demographic change, and politics:

I’m working my way through Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg’s “The Real Majority.” Written in 1970, it is in many ways a follow up to Phillips’ “The Emerging Republican Majority.” Though not nearly as exhaustive or as focused on political geography and history, it does grapple with the same turbulent time period—the late 1960’s—and tries to figure out how we seemed to move from LBJ to Nixon so quickly. Whereas Phillips had worked for the Nixon campaign, Wattenberg had worked for Johnson, and later Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Thus, their political leanings (at the time) and agenda differ a bit. Central to “The Real Majority” is the contention that the country’s rejection of LBJ was not rooted, as many have argued, in a disdain for the Vietnam War. While there was certainly opposition, the support for first Eugene McCarthy, and ultimately Nixon, was driven by what Scammon and Wattenberg call the “Social Issue.” Foremost among voters’ concerns was a combination of crime, urban unrest, racial strife, alienation, and other related issues that produced a broad uneasiness or malaise about the direction of the country. Whereas Vietnam may have been the most “important” issue for the country, it was not the “voting” issue that defined politics. In this vein, one can see how politicians like George Wallace, Ronald Reagan (first as California Governor), and even, I’d argue, William F. Buckley in his 1965 race for NYC mayor could tap into the anxiety of voters. Because elections are ultimately about putting together coalitions, the ability of candidates to capitalize on these sentiments and have them (rather than economic concerns, for example) determine voting outcomes can lead to a re-ordering of our politics.

As our country has become both 1) more suburbanized and 2) less afflicted by crime, we tend to forget how big of an issue the problem of our cities was by the late ‘60’s. With mass migration out of the central cities attention turned to other issues. I’ve always been fascinated with big cities—not only their politics, but also how they grapple with issues like crime, housing, education, and transportation. A few weeks ago, the New York Times came out with a fascinating story, and interactive map, on the incidence of murders across the five boroughs over several years. The first thing that we note is that compared to earlier years—especially during the ‘70’s and ‘80’s--the murder rate in New York City is substantially lower today. Whereas there were 2245 murders in NYC in 1990, last year saw only 521. Thus, we might imagine—using the parlance of “The Real Majority--that the “Social Issue” has receded in importance for New Yorkers, and others nation wide. One also finds, and the interactive map is amazing is allowing one to track each murder, that there are definite patterns in 1) who tends to commit murder; 2) who tends to be a victim; and 3) where these crimes take place. The combination of these variables will probably contribute to how people think about the severity of crime and the way it affects them. We see that murders in NYC tend to be concentrated in certain areas and tend to have perpetrators and victims who belong to the same race.

All of this—the rise of the “Social Issue,” issues of race and poverty, and the prevalence of crime—conditions how we view not only our cities, but our politics more broadly. Rarely, unfortunately, do we get the opportunity to take a step back and reflect upon these areas and the people who occupy them. These issues have been bouncing around in my head since I became aware of (and now obsessed with) an amazing photographer who has devoted the last 30 years to documenting inner city America. Camilo Jose Vergara currently has two exhibitions going, one in New York and one in Washington, that showcase his documentation of places (and people) we tend to overlook. While he primarily photographs inner city buildings, his work forces you to think about how our cities change (or don’t) and what those changes mean. He has created a website devoted to his work—Invincible Cities—that takes one to Harlem, Camden NJ, and Richmond CA and allows you to go street by street to see not only how these neighborhoods look today, but how they looked over several decades. His show currently in Washington, “Storefront Churces” presents his look at inner city houses of worship. A central theme to these portraits is that inner city churches have tended to spring up in places previously occupied by businesses, schools, or other, now departed, congregations. By tracking these changes one can get an understanding not only of the importance of religion to these communities but of how our urban areas have transformed themselves over time. Whereas many of the neighborhoods Vergara photographs were originally home to European immigrants, they are now virtually entirely black.

How do we put all of this together??? Ultimately (but perhaps unfortunately), politics and policy is about the issues that we are paying attention to and that we feel directly affect us. A generation ago, crime and the “problem of the cities” were among the top few issues driving our politics. Now these issues would seem to fall far down the list of Americans’ concerns. These urban areas, however, don’t disappear even if their problems get subsumed within the mix of more pressing concerns. Fortunately we have artists like Camilo Jose Vergara who force us to remember and ponder what is going on there.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Virginia Guv Primary Reminiscent of Feingold's Badger State Breakthrough

Multicandidate primaries are always tricky to predict. Turnout is usually low. Candidates have different bases of support. Each needs to decide which of their opponents they should attack and how. As a result, the final outcome is oftentimes completely out of whack compared to pre-voting polls and expectations. Such was the case with yesterday's stunner in the Virginia Democratic Governor's primary (see coverage here, here, here, and here). Prior to the vote, polling suggested an extremely tight race between Terry McCauliffe, Brian Moran, and the eventual winner Creigh Deeds. While Clinton booster and former DNC head McCauliffe was the early favorite in the race, based largely on his fundraising prowess and ties to the establishment Democratic machinery, downstate State Senator Deeds had been gaining momentum in recent days. Moran, a former state legislator from vote rich northern Virginia, was counting on a huge turnout among his suburban base to put him over the top. With three relatively evenly matched candidates one would have expected a nail biter. The result???--a Deeds landslide as he captured 50% compared to McCauliffe's 26% and Moran's 24%.

As I was reading the commentary on the race and looking at the results, something about this contest seemed awfully familiar to me. It hit me that yesterday's outcome, and the campaign leading up to it, mirrored almost exactly a campaign that I witnessed firsthand back in Wisconsin. In 1992, Democrats were looking for a nominee to challenge incumbent GOP Senator Bob Kasten. The three Democrats who emerged were 1) Joseph Checota, a wealthy Milwaukee attorney and former head of the Wisconsin Democratic party; 2) Congressman Jim Moody, a multi-term House member from Milwaukee, the state's largest vote center; and 3) Russ Feingold, a relatively unknown State Senator from Middleton, a suburb of Madison. Checota and Moody were by far the best funded and best tied to the party establishment and supporting interests. Feingold, while respected in the State Senate, was seen as the weakest of the three and least likely to win. The campaign quickly devolved into a nasty and expensive spat between the Checota and Moody. Checota was able to contribte considerable sums of his own wealth to the race and Moody was able to tap into numerous reliable sources of Democratic donors. As these two spent months attacking each other, Feingold plodded on, an afterthought to most. When the early September vote was held, Feingold scored a massive upset, capturing 70% of the primary vote, with Checota and Moody evenly splitting the remainder. See some coverage of the race here).

Fast forward to Virginia's race this year and the parallels are striking. You have a wealthy former party head (McCauliffe/Checota) with no previous elective experience, a well known legislator from the state's largest bloc of voters (Moran/Moody), and a relatively unknown, folksy, yet respected, State Senator (Deeds/Feingold). In Virginia this year, as in Wisconsin in 1992, McCauliffe and Moran spent much of the race focusing their fire on each other, especially given how much of the vote was expected to come from the place both resided--northern Virginia. Checota and Moody fought heavily over the Milwaukee area's bounty of voters in their back yards. The candidate most expected to trail far beyond the frontrunners was left to develop his own campaign, almost in isolation of the others. In doing so they were able to court a bloc of voters seemingly being ignored by those at the top. In '92, Moody and Checota were both seen as somewhat distant from Wisconsin's progressive tradition--Checota for his wealth and Moody (though sporting a generally liberal voting record) for his tenure on the Ways and Means committee. Feingold, on the other hand, came to the race with unblemished progressive bona fides. In Virginia, Moran and McCauliffe positioned themselves toward the left end of the spectrum while Deeds, hailing from the rural western part of the state, espoused a more Blue Dog-like platform.

While there are no doubt some differences between these races--most notably the fact that Deeds had run, and barely lost, a state-wide race previously whereas Feingold had no such state-wide exposure--the commonalities are worth noting for no other reason than how much the highlight the unpredictability of primaries. With each additional candidate in the race, the tactical calculus becomes much more complicated. While focusing attention on one candidate might seem obvious, such a decision may in fact present opportunities to those being ignored. When nobody is paying attention to a particular candidate, that candidate not only evades some scrutiny and bloodying, they also don't have to worry about their campaign devolving into a series of reactions and tit for tat responses. They can, in a sense, define their own candidacy, something that is no doubt how most candidates would like to appeal to voters.

When it comes to making predictions in these contests, perhaps these examples suggest that, when in doubt, pick the candidate running last. They oftentimes win.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Why is John Cornyn Being So Nice to Sonia Sotomayor???

To continue our look into the political, geographic, and demographic ramifications of the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, I thought I'd speculate a bit on how various Senate Republicans might approach the confirmation process. Over the past week the lines seem to have been drawn around the question of whether biography should affect one's view of the law. As we approach the confirmation hearings and vote, we'll move (thankfully) from the stage that we're currently in--all sorts of "legal analysts," interest group representatives, and other flaks pontificating their positions and advancing their agendas--to one in which those actually voting on her nomination (i.e. Senators) are at the forefront. Unlike the current crop of voices, Senators are actually accountable to voters. Thus, they tend to approach these decisions with a bit more tact and caution.

To get a sense of the calculations that some Republican Senators might be going through, I thought I'd look at the size of the Hispanic populations in their relative states. Opposing the first Hispanic nominee to the Supreme Court leaves one open to retribution from Hispanic constituents. If it comprises a sizable component of the electorate, an energized Hispanic bloc bent on retribution could prove decisive in defeating the Senator who votes "No." Given the degree to which Hispanics moved to the Democratic ticket last fall, and given the rate of growth in the Hispanic population, a number of GOP Senators are going to spend the next few months walking a delicate tight rope.

I've created the following chart that looks at each of the 40 current GOP Senate seats. Note that because we're focusing on the electoral dimension of the confirmation vote I haven't included the retiring Senators but have listed their seats as open. I've coded, first, when that seat is up for re-election. We might expect those Senators with re-election races next year to perhaps be most fearful of the charge of being anti-Hispanic. I've next coded the percentage of their state that is Hispanic, based on numbers from the Pew Hispanic Center. Obviously, those states with a larger Hispanic vote present "No" voting Senators with a greater risk. Next I've coded the margin of victory in each Senator's last election. Those GOP senators who had extremely large margins of victories might have little to fear (especially if they come from states w/a small Hispanic population) in voting against Sotomayor compared to those who had close races. Next I identify the seven current Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. These members will be in the spotlight as they lead the questioning of the nominee and cast the initial votes on her. Committee members also tend to "carry the water" for the party at large during the nomination process so we will see the emerging GOP strategy on Sotomayor implemented by this group. Finally, I've indicated how Senators in office at the time voted on Sotomayor's elevation to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1998. It will be interesting to see whether those who supported her in 1998 now vote against her, or vice versa,--and how they justify such a vote.

A couple of interesting things to note. As I noted in the title of this post, Texas Senator John Cornyn has been conspicous in his even-handedness toward the Sotomayor nomination. One reason for this, perhaps, is the demographic reality that is modern Texas. Percentage wise, the Lone Star State has the largest Hispanic population in the country. While Cornyn was just re-elected last fall with a relatively healthy margin, any future ambitions that he may have in the state (or nation-wide) are going to be affected by his standing among Hispanic voters. The fact that he also sits on the Judiciary Committee would seem to be further evidence of why he is taking such a moderate tack at this point. Finally I'd note that Cornyn is currently the head of the Republican Senatorial Committee and thus in charge of the effort to recruit and fund GOP Senate candidates this cycle. Unlike other Senators he needs to be especially attuned to the national mood and electorate. His recent comments that the GOP needs to become a "national" party again show that he is at least aware of how much work needs to be done among certain groups (including Hispanics) of the electorate. Cornyn's colleague from Texas, Kay Bailey Hutchison, is also worth watching. While her most recent victory was double that of Cornyn's, she has perhaps a more difficult decision to make. First, Hutchison is widely expected to declare herself a candidate for the upcoming governor's race in which she will challenge incumbent GOP Governor Rick Perry in what will no doubt be a blockbuster primary fight. Thus, each decision she makes will be parsed for its electoral ramifications. Complicating this is the fact that she voted against Sotomayor in 1998. The result is some pretty complicated political jujitsu---how do you 1) win a Republican primary in which the incentive is to move right (anti-Sotomayor) yet leave yourself in a position to 2) win the general election where over 1/3 of the electorate is Hispanic???

A similar dynamic exists further west in Arizona. Here, John McCain is on the ballot next year. While he's had relatively little difficulty in his recent re-elections, the trendlines have not been favorable for the GOP in Arizona over the past few cycles. Democrats have gained 3 House seats since 2006 and many believe that it will go Democratic in the next presidential race. With 30% of the population being Hispanic, one can see why these trends have emerged. One can envision a scenario in which McCain sides with the Sotomayor pick in the end. It fits his image of an "independent" or "maverick" while also, I'd suggest, being an easy vote. He will have to explain why he changed his mind after his 1998 vote against Sotomayor, though. Because McCain doesn't sit on Judiciary, the fate of the Sotomayor nomination will probably be well known by the time it gets to the Senate floor. If it appears that Sotomayor is going to be easily confirmed, McCain can vote "Yes"without worrying that his decision will change the outcome. He maintains good standing back home while not incurring the wrath of his party--he wins on all counts. John Kyl, the other Arizona GOPer, is in a much more tricky spot. He faces the same treacherous demographics, yet 1) had a closer re-election last time; 2) sits on Judiciary (and will thus be forced to stake a position relatively early on); and 3) voted against Sotomayor in 1998.

Other Senators to watch??? I'd pick out Richard Burr from North Carolina. Electorally he's in a state that has been moving Democratic and has a Hispanic population that while not huge, can be decisive--see Nate Silver's discussion of the Hispanic vote in Obama's Tarheel State win. He's also been pulling some pretty underwhelming poll numbers for an incumbent. The fact that he's not on Judiciary and wasn't in the Senate in '98, and thus didn't vote on Sotomayor then, gives him a lot of room to maneuver now. He could vote "Yes" in the end too.