As election 2004 heads into the home stretch amid signs of another photo finish, strategists for both major parties say the race will likely be determined in pockets such as the thriving Interstate 4 corridor that links Tampa and Orlando. With an electorate polarized by Bush-besotted Republicans and Bush-loathing Democrats, a small group of two-income households -- economically squeezed and strongly pro-military -- holds the key to the White House.
Florida, once part of the solidly Democratic South, is now a crucial swing state. Just as important, though, are switch-hitting voters in other wide-open zones such as the Hispanic Southwest, the Midwestern Rust Belt, and the boom-and-bust tech havens of the Pacific Northwest. That's why George W. Bush and John Kerry are lavishing an enormous amount of time and money on New Mexico, Missouri, and Oregon -- and blitzing Ohio and Pennsylvania.
What's wrong with this picture? Since the unaligned account for only 8% to 15% of an electorate of 130 million registered voters, a huge swath of America -- and its concerns -- is being ignored as the parties home in on about 17 competitive states. In effect, partisan balkanization, often referred to as the Red Zone-Blue Zone divide, has produced a bustling campaign superhighway. The states it runs through sizzle with political ads, door-to-door canvassing, and candidate visits. States in the rest of the nation -- including solidly Republican Dixie, the Rocky Mountain West, and the Great Plains, plus the Democratic Eastern seaboard and the megastate of California -- have been bypassed by the new political interstate.
Because like-minded people cluster in culturally hospitable regions, from conservative Utah to liberal Vermont, the Red Zones are growing redder and the Blue Zones bluer. The result: Dissenting voices often go unrepresented as political orthodoxy of the Left and the Right becomes more commonplace. "The great strength of pluralistic democracy was the fact that Americans saw themselves with many identities," notes University of Maryland political scientist Benjamin R. Barber. "But in our Red and Blue Zones, people increasingly identify themselves in fundamental ideological terms."
America in 2004 is confronted with profound questions of war and peace, and there is a stark contrast between the GOP vision of an entrepreneurial "ownership society" and the Democrats' new middle-class safety net. But since the Red and Blue Zones are self-canceling in their political impact, fateful decisions get tossed to a shrinking pool of persuadable voters made up of undecideds in battleground states. Frets Democratic strategist James C. Carville: "Only 2.5% of the electorate is going to decide this thing."
Winners and Losers
Demography, as the saying goes, may be destiny. But an archaic system of representation that includes a winner-take-all selection of electors and eschews proportionate representation at the local level is denying a voice to political minorities. Are you perchance one of the 2.4 million hardy Democrats living in Texas? You might as well hang up your political spurs. Since the Reagan era, Texas has become solidly Republican. Or perhaps you're a GOPer in New York or California, home to a combined 8.5 million members of the Grand Old Party. Tough luck, pal.
Thus, the corn farmer living in Iowa (one of the Sweet Seventeen) is coveted by both parties and showered with goodies such as ethanol subsidies. But just next door, the wheat grower in Republican South Dakota is insignificant to Presidential candidates. Ditto the hog farmer in Nebraska, the potato grower in Idaho, and the rancher in Oklahoma.
As recently as the Presidential election of 1976, the U.S. had 40 states that were in play, including the entire South and the Mid-Atlantic region. Now it's just a handful. Small wonder that fewer and fewer citizens feel they have a stake on Election Day. Turnout as a percentage of eligible voters in Presidential elections has fallen to 54.5% from 63.1% in 1960. Among 172 countries with democratic elections, the U.S. ranks an embarrassing 139th in participation.
Why in a land that extols the ideal of equality are some votes more equal than others? A key reason is the unusual way we pick our President. Americans do not directly tap a leader -- we vote for state electors, super-representatives who select a winner by casting ballots in the Electoral College. Four times in U.S. history, electors anointed a contender who lost the popular vote -- most recently, of course, in 2000.
From 1960 to 1976, all of the big states were electoral battlegrounds and were usually decided by five percentage points or less. Now, three of the four largest (California, New York, and Texas), with 44% of the electoral votes needed for victory, are off the table. This lack of competitiveness filters down to the local level. In 1976, just 26.8% of Americans lived in counties where one Presidential candidate won handily. Four years ago, 45.3% of voters were in such blowout counties.
With so many electoral votes predetermined, candidates don't waste time on sure bets, except for the occasional fund-raising foray. Instead, the Presidential race focuses on Gray Zones made up of the few remaining swing states (map, page 63). The battlegrounds are in the industrial heartland, where voters lean toward Democrats' economic populism but embrace Republican family values. And they are in Latino-influenced Sunbelt states from Arizona to Florida, where growing Hispanic populations and newcomers from more liberal locales have given Democrats a boost.
The result is a nation of political haves and have-nots. A high-tech family in the suburbs of Seattle or Portland -- both in battleground states -- is among the most sought-after, the subject of countless focus groups and direct-mail solicitations. But a techie in the Democratic turf of Boston's Route 128 corridor could go all year with nary a get-out-the-vote call.
The location of the key swing voters also helps shape our political discourse. Ever wonder why there's so much talk about the decline of U.S. manufacturing? One reason is that seven industrial battleground states with 79 electoral votes will likely tip the election. No wonder President Bush imposed steel-import quotas in 2002 despite the opposition of free-traders in his own party. And it's easy to figure out why Kerry, a longtime free-trader, now wants to crack down on Asian trade giants. With Hispanics in the Southwest a decisive bloc, Bush has upset conservatives by proposing a liberal guest-worker plan that could lead to legal status for millions of illegals. Kerry not only supports legalization but wants to restore benefits to legal immigrants cut off by the GOP Congress. It's tough to pander too hard in swing states.
Which states form the critical handful? The powerhouses are Florida, Ohio, and Missouri -- the last two being the most enduring swingers. No Republican has been elected without carrying the Buckeye State. No Democrat has become President without taking the Show Me State. Florida, which tilted Republican in the '50s and '60s, is volatile again as it absorbs more Northeastern transplants and non-Cuban Caribbean immigrants. It has picked seven of the past eight winners.
Meanwhile, states with predictable partisan voting, such as New York (Democratic) and Utah (Republican) have seen their influence shrink. That's why Kerry won't be spending much time by the Great Salt Lake this year. But by focusing on the Gray Zone, the major parties are reinforcing the cycle of uncompetitiveness in Red and Blue states. And indifference at the Presidential level hurts each party's chances in local contests. In Texas, Dems won every statewide office in 1982 but are completely shut out today. "If you don't spend the resources fertilizing the soil, you don't get a good harvest," says Democratic strategist Donna Brazile.
Many of the distortions can be traced to the Electoral College, set up by the Founding Fathers partly to shield against unfiltered democracy -- then equated with mob rule. The College was also designed to preserve the power of small states by giving them a higher percentage of electoral votes than their populations would warrant. Finally, the College was a sop to Southerners, who were given credit for each slave at the rate of three-fifths of a free voter, magnifying the power of white property owners in Dixie. "These compromises were the basis of the Electoral College," says George Mason University Professor James P. Pfiffner. "But they are not relevant any more."
Today, the Electoral College still benefits smaller states by giving each of them two bonus votes in the Presidential balloting. Because most of these states are becoming increasingly Republican, that hands the GOP a built-in edge of 10 to 12 electoral votes -- more than the margin of victory in 2000.
Since Republicans have fought their way to parity with Democrats, some political scientists see the 2000 election as the harbinger of an era of instability in which one candidate triumphs in raw popular support while the other finds the winning formula in electoral votes. For Republicans, the small-state bonus is the major reason. But a Democrat could easily be the beneficiary of the system's idiosyncrasies by narrowly winning industrial states with large numbers of electoral votes. For example, if Kerry snares Ohio or Missouri, he could win an electoral majority while trailing Bush in the popular vote.
There is a way to avoid such destabilizing contests: The candidate with the most votes wins -- no ifs, ands, or buts. Experts such as Pfiffner would like to see a national dialogue over a direct-election system. Such a debate would, of course, be intensely controversial since it entails a deviation from the Founders' design. But so did abolishing slavery and granting women suffrage. After 216 years of Presidential elections, it seems as if the time is right to reaffirm a basic tenet of democracy -- the one that says everybody's vote counts.