Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Why red and blue doesn't work. The problem with dividing the country into blue states and red states, argues Robert David Sullivan, is that more than 40 percent of voters in the red states voted for Al Gore four years ago and more than 40 percent of voters in the blue states voted for George W. Bush.

In other words, not only is the country divided right down the middle; so are the states themselves.

Sullivan - an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine and a former Boston Phoenix editor - has attempted to figure out what's really going on by dividing the country into 10 regions whose voting patterns have been similar since the 1970s. The result - "Beyond Red and Blue" - is a model of detailed analysis, based on county-by-county election results and various demographic measurements such as ethnicity, education, and income.

Many states are split under Sullivan's model, but not Massachusetts. We - along with much of the rest of New England, parts of New York, and the West Coast from San Francisco to the Canadian border - are part of the Upper Coasts, whose politics are both liberal and quirky. In 2000, for instance, the Upper Coasts were Gore's second-strongest of the 10 regions, but also Ralph Nader's strongest.

New Hampshire and Maine, oddly enough, are split between the Upper Coasts and the Sagebrush region. There's a lot more snow than sagebrush in northern New England, but Sullivan groups them with the West for their libertarianism. The Sagebrush counties are anti-regulation and not at all taken with the religious-conservative base of the Republican Party - which explains why they were only Bush's third-strongest region in 2000, behind Southern Comfort (the deepest of the Deep South) and Appalachia (a band stretching from central Pennsylvania through northern Alabama and Mississippi).

Among Sullivan's most interesting findings is that though the Bush-Gore race was extremely close, fewer regions were up for grabs than was the case in 1976, when Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford. Voters have become more set in their ways, and despite the decline of formal party politics, many people are actually more likely to cast a straight party ballot than they were a generation ago.

As for why the 2000 election was so close, Sullivan notes that Gore and Bush each won five of the 10 regions. If either Bush or his Democratic challenger can capture six regions in 2004, he will just about be assured of victory. Sullivan shows exactly how the campaigns ought to go about doing just that. (Don't let Karl Rove see this.)

"Beyond Red and Blue" has already attracted the attention of the Daily Kos. Check out this wonderfully obscure take by DHinMI.

Sullivan's map is a political junkie's dream. And it will change the way you think about presidential politics.

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