TCS Daily


By William J. Stuntz - November 4, 2004 12:00 AM

The lesson of this year's election is simple: The Republican base beats the Democratic base. Bush and Kerry were both excite-the-base candidates, like Bush and Gore in 2000. So these two elections give us a pretty good indication of how the parties' bases stack up against each other.

Four years ago, they were dead even -- the 50-50 nation. Today, the Republicans are three or four points ahead -- as Michael Barone wrote after the off-year elections of 2002. (By the way: if they ever award a Nobel Prize for political analysis, Barone ought to get the first one. Maybe every one. He's a genius. Not surprisingly, he was the first person on Tuesday night to see that the exit polls had gone haywire.) The Republicans are ahead, not by a lot but by enough. If the Democrats keep nominating excite-the-base candidates who run Shrumian campaigns, expect to see the same results. (Future delegates for Hillary Clinton: are you listening?)

The best way to see how the two sides stack up is to look at one of those red-and-blue maps that seem to breed these days. Divide the country into three parts: Kerry's base, Bush's base, and the Midwest. Kerry's base is the Northeast -- everything North of the Potomac River and East of Ohio -- together with the Pacific Coast and Hawaii. (They don't call it the "left coast" for nothing.) Kerry swept his base 194-0. Bush's base is the South and the rest of the West. Bush swept his base too, by an electoral score of 237-0, assuming the New Mexico vote holds up. But Bush's base is bigger. Which means Kerry needed to nearly sweep the Midwest to catch up. He did carry the Midwest, but not by much: 58-49 in the electoral college. Bush carried Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and Iowa -- and he could have lost any of the last three without changing the result.

This is a common historical pattern. Several times we have had elections that pitted the Northeast -- today, the Northeast plus the Pacific Coast -- against the South and West. The electoral math is always the same: In order to have a chance, the candidate of the Northeast must sweep the Midwest. That hasn't happened since William McKinley, Karl Rove's hero. Instead, the Midwest always divides. Michigan and the upper Midwest usually follow the Northeast. But Ohio and Missouri, sometimes joined by a couple of their neighbors, go with the candidate of the South and West, giving that candidate the victory. Woodrow Wilson in 1916, Harry Truman in 1948, Richard Nixon in 1968, George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 -- all followed the same formula. In each case, the winner nearly swept the South and West, added a few Midwestern states (always including Ohio and Missouri), and won the election.

By now, the lessons should be clear. The Northeast and Pacific Coast aren't enough to win the White House. And Ohio and Missouri do not follow New York and Massachusetts.

For Democrats, the picture is getting worse. The Midwest is trending Republican. Consider these figures (in 2000 and 2004 I have added Nader's votes to the Democratic total):

                   1988                             2000                                     2004

                 Dukakis    Bush      Gore-Nader      Bush       Kerry-Nader        Bush

Minnesota       52.9%    45.9                53.1               45.5            51.8                     47.6

Wisconsin        51.4        47.8                51.4               47.6            50.3                     49.3

Iowa                 54.7        44.5                50.7               48.2            49.6                      50.1

Missouri           47.9         51.8               48.6               50.4             46.1                      53.4

Gore-plus-Nader ran basically even with or behind Dukakis in all four states. Kerry-plus-Nader ran at least one percentage point behind. Bush ran ahead of his father's winning 1988 performance in all four states; the differences range from 12 points in Wisconsin to more than 5 points in Iowa. (Maybe Iowans read Mickey Kaus and felt the need to atone for their caucus votes.)

Needless to say, Democrats aren't likely to win when they can't top Dukakis in the Midwest. And this is a moving target. Bush won Missouri in 2000; this time, he won Missouri and Iowa. With similar candidates in 2008, the Republicans might win all four. Ohio could be the least of the Democrats' problems.

Still, the news is not all bad for Democrats, and not all good for Republicans. By historical standards John Kerry ran a very strong race, and George W. Bush was a shaky incumbent. Bill Clinton would probably have won this election by five or six points. Just as John McCain would have beaten Kerry in a landslide.

Which leads to a piece of conventional wisdom that's actually pretty wise: America divides into red and blue because those are the colors the parties give us. Perhaps both sides need to see that the smart move is to paint with a different color. Purple beats red or blue, every time. In 2008, when Rudy Giuliani faces off against Barack Obama, those maps will look very different.

William J. Stuntz is a Professor at Harvard Law School.


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