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Beyond red and blue (again)

GEORGE W. BUSH can now claim a clear victory in the popular vote for president, thanks in part to people in and around the city of New York. But the president got no reelection mandate from the citizens of Savannah, Ga.

Wait a minute! Doesn't the familiar red-and-blue map prove that the Northeast is indefatigably Democratic and the South irrevocably Republican? Well, when you go beyond red and blue, things in the electorate get more complicated.

Last year, under the auspices of CommonWealth magazine, I devised a map that divided the United States into 10 distinct political regions, based on returns from national and state elections, demographic data from the US Census, and certain geographical features. These regions -- which each cast about 10.5 million votes in 2000 -- cut across state lines and even leapfrog them entirely (as with Upper Coasts, which includes most of New England as well as the coastal West from San Francisco up to the Canadian border). In many cases, they divide battleground states into two or three different regions, which explains why those states "swing."Last year, I predicted that if Bush or the Democratic nominee carried a sixth region, while holding on to the five that he or his party's nominee won in 2000, he would have a clear (i.e., litigation-free) win. Bush accomplished this feat, but not by much, winning the Big River region with a margin of 50.1 percent to 49.0 percent. Big River, which follows the Mississippi from northern Minnesota to Memphis, includes most of three states (Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) that were showered with television ads and candidate appearances this fall. Bush and John Kerry were separated by less than one percentage point in only about 65 of the 3,140 counties nationwide, and the greatest number were in Big River.

When Bush spoke after the election of having "the will of the people at my back," he was more likely referring to the 3.5 million-vote advantage he won in the popular tally than to his narrow victory in the Electoral College. Across the country, voter turnout was so high that Bush and Kerry each increased his party's raw vote in every region. The higher turnout benefited Bush in eight of them, including Northeast Corridor -- the most Democratic region in the country four years ago. The Democratic margin in this region, which includes such major cities as New York and Philadelphia, shrank from 2.9 million in the last presidential election to 2.2 million votes this time.

Kerry won the battle for new votes in only two regions, Upper Coasts (his home base, where he won 60.3 percent) and Great Lakes (which includes Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, and which he won with 56.7 percent). But it's worth repeating that Kerry still beat Bush in two other regions -- and that he didn't actually lose votes in any region. Compared with 2000, Bush's win was decisive, but this map shows that the Republican Party can hardly rest easy in 2008.

The red-and-blue map didn't change much from 2000 to 2004, but our 10 regions reveal some significant shifts. With 61.4 percent of its vote cast for Bush, Appalachia -- which has the poorest and most rural population in the United States, and was a bedrock region for Democratic nominees from Andrew Jackson to Harry Truman -- became the most Republican region in the country for the first time since at least 1976 (as far back as our county-level data go), and probably for the first time in American history. In almost all of the states in this region, Bush carried rural counties that haven't voted Republican since the Nixon landslide of 1972, and even stuck with Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan in 1984. Meanwhile, the most Republican region of 2000, the Gulf Coast-oriented Southern Comfort, was a close second this time (61.3 percent for Bush), and it was a key factor in keeping Florida in Bush's column.

But the growing Republican strength in Appalachia and Southern Comfort obscures the fact that Southern Lowlands, which lies in between, remains closely divided between the two parties. While Bush once again won Southern Lowlands (with 51.5 percent of the vote), Kerry increased Democratic margins in many parts of the region: northern Virginia; most of the major cities of North Carolina; and not only Atlanta but two adjoining suburban counties. He also pulled the county that includes Savannah, Ga., into the Democratic column.

This year Upper Coasts was the most Democratic region in the country -- again, probably for the first time in US history. If its representation in Congress is any indication, Upper Coasts is the most liberal region in the country on social and environmental issues; many Democratic Party strategists now deem it essential not to nominate someone from this region in 2008. Kerry's strength in his home region did help him capture New Hampshire, and four years ago that state's electoral votes would have been enough to put Gore in the White House. But the redistribution of electoral votes to fast-growing Southern and Western states meant that New Hampshire wouldn't have been enough of a boost this time even if Kerry had held onto the Gore states of Iowa and New Mexico.

The next most Democratic region was Northeast Corridor, but it was hardly something for Kerry to brag about. It was here that Bush enjoyed his biggest surge in the popular vote percentages, turning a 62-35 loss into a less lopsided 59-40. Nationally, four of the five counties with the biggest GOP gains, in raw votes, were those that make up Long Island. Kings (Brooklyn), Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk counties all went for Kerry, but his margin there was more than 250,000 votes short of Gore's in 2000. At the same time, Staten Island flipped from 57 percent for Gore to a 50 percent win for Bush, while New Jersey's Ocean County (which has a high retiree population) went from a 49 percent plurality for Bush to a 60 percent landslide.

Despite these shifts, the "must-win" regions for each party will probably be the same in 2008 as they were in 2004 -- and 2000. For example, it's hard to imagine the Democrats winning without taking back the Big River region -- that is, holding on to enough rural and small-town votes to keep Minnesota and Wisconsin, win back Iowa, and at least make the Republicans fight for Arkansas and Missouri.As for the Republicans, the question may be whether they can go any farther by revving up their conservative, mostly rural base in Appalachia and the Farm Belt (which Bush won with 59 percent). It's possible that they'll need to look toward more populous counties with culturally conservative Catholic and blue-collar workers -- those old "Reagan Democrats."

This year in Pennsylvania, Bush did flip two counties in the corridor between Pittsburgh and Erie; if the GOP is maxed out in Appalachia, those are the kinds of places that could switch the state's electoral votes. And in Michigan, Bush did well in the most rural parts of the Farm Belt, but he would have had to bulk up his showings in the region's urban counties to carry the state.The Republicans must also keep an eye on the Southwest. In winning the Sagebrush region by a bigger margin (60.6 percent) than the Democrats won the more heavily Hispanic and urban El Norte (54.9 percent), the GOP helped to snatch New Mexico and hold onto Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada. But the population is growing so rapidly in those states that the Republicans can't be sure of that equation holding for four more years.

The 10 Regions approach also puts the perplexing question of what the Democratic Party needs to do about the South in a different light. Right now, common wisdom is that the party must reduce the Republican margin in Appalachia by somehow neutralizing the "guns, God, and gays" issues that have doomed Democrats in rural areas. But it could be just as important to build on the party's foundation in Southern Lowlands, which is more urban, better-educated, and more heavily minority than the other Southern regions (indeed, Southern Lowlands has the highest percentage of blacks in the population, nearly 28 percent, of any of our 10 regions).

This choice isn't obvious on the red-and-blue map, which simply screams "Look South" or "Go West" to the Democratic party. But it would be foolish to assume there's only one way to court the South -- just as it would be short-sighted for the Republicans to believe that voters on the West Coast and in the Maine-to-Minnesota corner of America move in lockstep. If the parties want to understand the American electorate in 2008, they're going to have to go beyond red and blue.

Robert David Sullivan is an associate editor of CommonWealth, a quarterly journal published by MassINC, a Boston-based nonpartisan think tank. More on the 10 Regions of US Politics can be found at www.massinc.org. 

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