One of the most critical underlying stories of last night’s election is the continuation of a regional electoral realignment that started in the 1960s and reached partial fruition yesterday night. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won election to the Presidency by winning every southern state, a spine of states running up the Appalachians to New York, several Midwestern industrial states, and only one state west of the Mississippi (Texas). This was the last gasp of the old Democratic coalition, built on the “Solid South” and the Rust Belt.
That coalition was decisively fractured by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the subsequent Republican exploitation of disaffected white southerners. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” effectively started to split the Solid South away from the Democrats. Slowly, over the next several decades, the southern realignment meant the disappearance of southern Democrats at all levels. Southern Democratic Senators and Representatives lost elections, left for the GOP, or retired. By the late 1980s, the south was consistently voting Republican at a national level (with several exceptions). Pushed out of their traditional base, the Democratic Party faced an enormous challenge to establish a new base from which to fight elections. Without such a base, the Democrats would go into each Presidential cycle at a built-in deficit to the Republicans, as both Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis discovered.
The Democrats did have one advantage. The two bookend states of the electoral college, California and New York, were trending Democratic, and they brought with them nearly 100 electoral votes. Add to that midwestern states like Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and the Democrats had the start of a new coalition, one centered in the northeast, the middle west, and the west coast. But it took time to build it, and the GOP had a headstart with the South. In a preview of this new coalition, a Democratic candidate like Bill Clinton in 1992 could manage to win by taking the northeast, the midwest, and the far west, while still pulling a few southern states into the blue side (Georgia and Kentucky, for example). But eight years later, Al Gore could not even win his home state of Tennessee and the entire south went for George Bush (albeit Florida with some shadiness). The south (especially the Deep South) was redder than red. The northeast, west, and midwest were trending Democratic but there were still states that waffled. Thus New Hampshire in 2000 went for Bush. Thus Iowa in 2004 went for Bush. The Democrats had the bones of a coalition in place, but the body remained to be filled out.
The election of 2004 confirmed the delicate balance. George W. Bush won by holding the states of the South, Great Plains, and Mountain West, and defeating John Kerry in Ohio, Florida, and Iowa. He won no states on the west coast. He won no states in the Northeast. Most ominously, he lost Pennsylvania, which suggested that the Democratic coalition was beginning to expand ever so slightly southward. In addition, the races in several mountain west states, like New Mexico were close enough to suggest Republican vulnerability. The realignment continued in 2006, albeit at the Congressional level. Republicans in Northeastern states at both the House and Senate were clobbered. The northeastern states were becoming bluer than blue. Most critically and surprisingly, the Democrats managed a strong showing in some border states of the Old Confederacy, most notably Virginia, where Jim Webb eked out a Senatorial victory. Combine that with Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, which pushed the Democratic Party to compete in all the states of the union, 2006 presaged a Presidential election in which, for the first time in a generation, the Democrats would have an advantage.
Barack Obama played that advantage masterfully. What is particularly notable about the campaign is the fact that Obama had several pathways to victory, instead of the essentially constrained choices of John Kerry. Spared the expense of defending much of the northeast and west coast (as the Republicans were spared the cost of defending the South), Obama could pour money, time, and effort into Florida and Ohio and Indiana and New Mexico and Colorado and Virginia. In all of those places, the Democrats dominated the airwaves and built massive ground operations. In addition, the new Democratic electoral base consisted of states which are among the wealthiest and most populated in the United States, and Obama’s fundraising reflected that wealth and population.
The realignment helped create a Presidential race in which the Republicans were on the defensive from the start, and reduced to a narrow set of possible victory scenarios. By the end of the campaign, McCain had to sweep the table of toss-up states to have any chance to win. Last night, McCain did not only not sweep the table, but he lost states that a Republican had not lost in a generation, including Virginia and (seemingly) North Carolina. Pennsylvania went convincingly for Obama, as did Florida and Ohio and a bevy of western states. If Jimmy Carter was the last gasp of the old Solid South coalition and Bill Clinton was the candidate of a transitional coalition, Barack Obama is the president-elect of the new alliance of east and west and middle, a Democratic coalition decades in the building.