With us or against us

Barton Swaim, a former Republican speechwriter, wrote what he believes is the “perfect Republican Stump Speech” – a distillation of the talking points supposedly winning out in the Republican presidential primary presented to maximum gain and minimal risk. Over at 538, they have an annotated presentation of it, which details why specific words and phrases are key. One of the elements to it that leaped out at me was the regionalism.

For anyone who’s read What’s the Matter with Kansas? this bit from the speech might not be too shocking:

In fact, this election boils down to a few very simple principles. To understand these principles, you don’t need an advanced degree in the latest trendy subject from an Ivy League school. You don’t need to get your opinions from the New York Times. You don’t need to be some policy wonk in Washington, and you don’t need to be a member of the intelligentsia [Annotation: Consider amending to “Northeast and West Coast intelligentsia” for locations not in the Northeast or on the West Coast.] .

You really just need two things to understand what this election is about: You need your God-given intelligence, and you need a deep and abiding love for this country.

The disparagement for “elitists” that is ubiquitous within broader conservative politics is on full display here, and it nakedly gives away one of the easiest ways for it to find expression: the writing off of a large swathe of the country as apparently too good to vote for Republicans. The risk that alienating a huge part of the electorate poses to any Republican fundamentally isn’t a concern, apparently.

The anti-intellectual elements to this only broaden the risks. Academics and intellectuals, some of whom tend to vote Republican, can be found in every state – why throw away their votes? Beyond their presence throughout the country, there are vibrant academic cultures in places outside of the Northeast and West Coast, in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and Hawaii. In all of those states, the growing anti-intellectualism of the Republican Party has helped push them into consistent Democratic wins in the presidential race and often at the state and local levels as well. Doubling down on that rhetoric only reinforces that loss of competitiveness.

With that in mind, it’s a surprisingly large chunk of the electoral college that this pushes out, further away, or even out of reach of Republican candidates.

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The implication of writing off, to varying degrees, all of those electoral college blocs is that you have to win almost every other one.

That means that Republicans have to not just dominate the southwest, but reverse the rising Democratic support in Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico. It means that the Upper Midwest has to be largely reclaiming as Republican territory – the parts not terribly vulnerable to Republican wins like Michigan and Wisconsin (neither has been won in the electoral college by Republicans since 1988), the parts a bit easier for Republicans to win like Ohio (still won twice by Obama), and Republican strongholds like Indiana (still won once by Obama). It means counting on Virginia to still be a part of the Solid South. It means North Carolina (and Georgia too maybe down the road) being impossible for Democrats to take (like they did North Carolina in 2008). It means winning perpetually too-close-to-call Florida.

In short, completely writing off that set of states means spreading Republican resources thin almost everywhere. It basically hopes to reinvent the 2004 Presidential race’s returns, by will alone.

In that race, the Republicans won, in spite of losing all but two of the states the above map has shaded in. In Iowa and Virginia that year, resentful talk about an educated elite (particularly in the northeast or west coast) sounded to most voters as if it was about someone else, and didn’t potentially include them. That gave Republicans a little breathing room that they can’t necessarily count on in 2016.

The only two states not shaded in above which the Republicans lost that year were Wisconsin and Michigan – in which Democrats maintained some of their smallest margins, 0.38 percent and 3.42 percent respectively. Talking dismissively about the northeast and west coast hypothetically could help wring out those few additional votes needed to turn them red, but that’s with the assumption that those races will be just as close now as then.

The only two other states they lost with comparably low margins were Pennsylvania and New Hampshire – two of the states in the northeast with some of the largest populations outside of the Boston-Washington corridor, and hence potentially most likely to think a contempt for “the northeast” meant someone else. Not far behind those two were Oregon and Minnesota – a similarly exceptional case on the west coast and another part of the Midwest hypothetically excited by hearing negative comments about other parts of the country.

In short, from a Republican perspective focused on recreating 2004, this type of rhetoric is potentially a crowd winner in almost all of the states they already carry, a useful way of appealing in some of the states Democrats just barely won, and largely alienating only to voters in states they had little to no chance of winning.

Of course, that was now over a decade ago – the electoral map has changed. 2004’s returns haven’t appeared to be a lasting condition, so much as a snapshot of where the country was at that moment. The greater continuities in voting patterns – easily observed through the 1990s and into the Obama years – suggests a greater uphill battle for Republicans in the Midwest than 2004 alone might imply. What’s more, in New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, the developmental growth from the Boston-Washington corridor (now, the Acela Corridor) has made them more likely to see disparagement of the northeast as including them. A regionalist tone today might win some voters over in Midwestern states, but it’s risking even more for a less certain gain.

Beyond that changing calculation of risk, it fails to recognize the emergence of new voting patterns in states that Republicans won in 2004 (and would count on winning under a regionalist strategy). Throughout the southwest and in Florida, Latin@s have emerged as a key constituency, and in Florida and Colorado particularly, new voting dynamics have cropped up among White voters as well. Negative talk about other parts of the country might change some of those voters minds, but policies on immigration and economics are attracting them to the Democrats over Republicans in a way that talk about coastal eggheads is unlikely to challenge.

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Remember these maps? Obama won seven of those red states in both elections. Not exactly lasting.

A core part of the argument laid out in What’s the Matter with Kansas? and several other looks at the increasing regionalism and anti-elitism in conservative politics is how they collapse those two issues. In that book and others, what’s presented is a bait-and-switch. Kansans (and others) who are angry for the systemic poverty they either can’t escape or live in perpetual fear of, are told it’s the fault of some “coastal elites” or “effete cultural elitists.”

Misdirected, Kansans and others from “the heartland” end up putting at least some of their energy into fighting symbolic cultural issues, burning off their populist anger doing something that doesn’t directly address their problems. It also propels Republicans into office with popular support in spite of them holding what are typically deeply unpopular economic policies.

What that often overlooks is that what one of the effects of that strategy is that it sets neglected and impoverished people from some parts of the country (Kansas, far from anything like a coastal elite, is the quintessence of that) at odds with the millions of other people in poverty, who often fight to keep the Democratic Party’s agenda focused squarely on feasible economic redistribution.

Ultimately, dividing the country against itself is incredibly effective at preventing collective action to address economic inequalities (as well as their various social dimensions). But being elected is, itself, a collective action. Doing everything possible to tear up a notion of shared goals if not outright community between the “Kansans” and others motivated by their lack of economic security isn’t a strategy that seeks to maintain a cohesive national politics. Among other things, that means that there are no more national elections – there’s and election in one US and an election in another – and it’s increasingly difficult to win both. Are Republicans really sure they want to set that challenge for themselves?

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