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Mark Siegel

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Red to Purple to Blue -- The Collapse of the Republican Electoral College Base

Posted: 05/15/2012 1:32 pm

As America is riveted on the 2012 presidential election, a more significant long term phenomenon continues to inexorably reshape American politics. Over the last two political generations the reliable, traditional and predictable state by state Electoral College map of the Republican Party has steadily and dramatically shifted from Red to Purple to Blue. The shift is one dimensional away from the Republican Party. A large chunk of the Republican state base is now either competitive or has turned Blue. If demography is destiny, it would seem that the national Republican Party may be heading off a cliff.

It wasn't too many years ago that Democrats would have to thread a very small needle to come close to 270 Electoral College votes and win the presidency. In my lifetime, California and Illinois were reliably Red states, as were Delaware, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. These Red states are now comfortably and predictably Blue, a shift of 125 electoral college votes in their own right. Within our political generation, the states of Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia were solidly and reliably Republican. Now they are competitively Purple, totally another 132 Electoral College votes that have slipped away from the Republican presidential base.

Only one state has moved from a deep Blue state to a deep Red state in the new era, and that is West Virginia, with its five electoral college votes. Four states that were competitively Purple in the past are increasingly Blue -- Connecticut and New Jersey, with 21 Electoral College votes turning dark Blue, and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, with 30 Electoral College votes, turning a somewhat lighter Blue. Two other traditional Republican presidential states that are not in play in 2012, will likely be competitively purple in 2016 or 2020 as the demographics of Texas and Georgia shift in the Democrats favor, another 54 Electoral College vote hemorrhage away from the Republican Party.

There are various explanations for this dramatic change in American presidential politics. As the people of the United States have become more libertarian, the Republican party has become more dogmatic and ideological. As the US has become more ethnically and racially diverse, the Republican party has become more ethnically and racially homogeneous. And as the US electorate has become increasingly younger, the Republican voting base is not only getting older, but it literally dying off. Demographics and politics are creating a new America, different from any of the Americas we have ever known or studied in the past. This is not an indictment, it is an observation. Systems theory would predict that any social, political or biological system that cannot adapt to change will ultimately disappear. The Republican nominating process in 2012 has demonstrated a party that increasingly appeals to and cultivates a narrowing sliver of the American electorate. And unlike politics a century ago, when a party could run a nominating campaign to its base and then lunge into the center for the general election, audio tape, video tape, the internet and 24/7 cable make the "etch-a-sketching away" of a long and bitter primary fight all but impossible. And there will be a sufficient number of Paul, Santorum and Gingrich delegates on the floor in Tampa to make a "reconstructionist moderate platform" politically unachievable, even if it is pragmatically desirable.

No one can predict what the next six months will bring. The recovery could stall or even reverse. Unemployment figures could again start to rise. An Israeli attack on Iran could have enormously negative economic repercussions on an already faltering world economy. The Eurozone could come apart after the electoral upheavals in France and Greece. Under these conditions, no incumbent anywhere in the world can feel secure, including Barack Obama.

Yet in terms of long term political trends, receiving 270 Republican Electoral College votes is becoming increasingly difficult, with enormous hurdles of demography and ideology threatening to make the Republican Party a regional fixture of the South, and an ideological prisoner to an increasingly extreme political base. If elections are won on the margins, this is a Republican formula for disaster -- if not for 2012, then certainly more and more as we move toward the purple-ization of Texas and Georgia. A Democratic Party that in the past could only win if it had a Southern presidential candidate, may soon be able to count on a Southern base of 111 Electoral College votes (Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Texas and Georgia) irrespective of its presidential candidate's region, race or ethnicity.

The Republican Party may wish to consider these factors in determining its core and message, remembering what happens to systems that cannot adapt. With the "blue-ing" and " purple-ing" of America, the elephant may soon become a dinosaur.

Mark Siegel, a partner at Locke Lord Strategies, holds a Ph.D. in political behavior from Northwestern University and is a former Executive Director of the Democratic National Committee.

 
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