Wednesday, April 18, 2012

People, Not Places

Back around 1990, there was much talk among political commentators about the Republican "electoral lock" on the White House. The idea was that Republicans had won the last three elections relying on a solid bloc of votes in the Sunbelt. Many of these states had gone Republican all of the last five elections. Moreover, their electoral significance would continue to rise, as they were growing rapidly in population while Democratic strongholds were shrinking. So the situation would only get worse.

To anyone who bothered to think about it, it was obvious that this was nonsense. Places don't vote, people do. If a lot of people are moving from Democratic strongholds to the Sunbelt, the normal assumption would be that the Sunbelt is becoming more Democratic. People don't check their politics at the door when they move, or get a new party registration when they close on a house.

And so it turned out. When Clinton ran in 1992, the Republican electoral lock was nowhere to be found. Clinton won both the popular vote (a plurality) and the electoral vote.

Now this thinking seems to be making a comeback. In a column in Tuesday's New York Times, Timothy Egan talks about how Karl Rove's strategy for a "durable Republican majority" is being undone by demographics. Rove's plan included a focus on the "exurbs," fast-growing areas located far from city cores. But now central cities are growing faster than exurbs, and, since central cities are Democratic territory, this is bad news for Republicans. See the fallacy?

There are, of course, some legitimate reasons why city residents might vote differently just by virtue of being  city residents. They're likely to be less concerned about gas prices, for instance, and more concerned about support for public transportation. But that's a long way from changing one's party affiliation.

There are also real demographic trends that are worrisome for Republicans. They do badly among young voters; since people tend to stick to the way they voted in their first few elections, this is a long-term problem. They also are unpopular among non-Cuban Hispanics, and there's no obvious reason why new voters in this fast-growing group would like them better than old voters. But these are people trends, not place trends.

It may be true, as Egan seems to believe, that "demography is destiny." But geography is not demography.

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