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David Herdson asks: Can anyone Unite the States again?

November 10th, 2012

Have we seen the end of Presidential landslide victories?

In the six presidential elections between 1964 and 1984, every state in the USA bar one (Arizona) voted at least once for a Republican and once for a Democrat. In the six most recent elections, between 1992 and 2012, only nineteen have done so. For the third time in four US presidential elections, the winner finished less than 3% ahead of the runner-up in the popular vote.

However, the closeness of the national picture masks deep but balancing divisions. With but a few exceptions, the North East, non-prairie Mid-West and West Coast are solid for the Democrats, while the South and the remainder of the interior are increasingly Republican bastions. Obama won a majority of women’s votes by a double-digit margin but was some way behind among men. Romney scored less than a quarter of the rapidly increasing Latino vote only eight years after Bush won over 40% of it, and won a pitifully small share of the black vote, yet defeated Obama by a ratio of 3:2 among white voters. Not for two generations have the States been so disunited and it‘s even longer since the divisions were so institutionalised in voting patterns.

It’s true that party alignment only goes so far and that while presidential politics may have been fought to a standstill, some of the states which turn out again and again for one side in that election will return members of the opposite party to the senate or governor’s mansion. So they will, but generally only if there are either peculiar local circumstances or if a candidate stands on a markedly different platform from the national party – as Romney himself can testify.

The simple fact is that it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible for these apparently crossover politicians to win their party’s nomination while sticking to the policies that gave them their crossover appeal in the first place (unless they‘re already president).

    One reason is the increasing extent that social policy is playing in the campaigns. Value divisions produce fewer swing voters and much stronger opinions both ways than questions of economic capability or a candidate’s capacity to act as the national figurehead.

Even if the Tea Party is a movement whose time has peaked, that it could rise as far as it did is good evidence that arguments about the role of government are unlikely to go away any time soon. As an aside, apart from its withering demographic base, another problem the Republican Party has is that in the Tea Partiers and the social conservatives, it probably has the two noisiest lobby groups – and ideological noise rarely attracts independents.

Does it matter? Yes, it does. A landslide gives a president increased political authority while a marginal or dubious victory will embolden Congress in any clashes, as will a more divisive campaign, as will a Congress not controlled by the president‘s party. With the divisions that exist, it may well be that the kind of country-changing politics that FDR, Johnson or Reagan were able to spearhead will quite simply not be possible for several electoral cycles. Simply getting agreement on not driving off the ‘fiscal cliff’ will be hard enough.

David Herdson