That headline sums up a couple articles from Governing, one about how Democrats have fared in elections since 2004, and another taking the same look at Republicans. The author of both articles, Louis Jacobson, looked at the least competitive states for each party, and concludes that rather than making up ground, each part has gotten weaker in its weakest states. The absence of Republicans in California and Democrats in Tennessee might be extreme examples, but they’re not outliers. They’re the trend.
What’s particularly disheartening for supporters of Howard Dean’s “50-State Strategy”, which includes me, is Democrats bucked this trend for a while. The gains in red states and districts weren’t huge, apparently not enough to convince the skeptics who took over the DNC after Dean stepped down as national chair, but the abandonment of the strategy coincided with massive losses for the Democrats. Yes, there were other factors, but some factors, like a general political polarization, were already around was Dean was chair. The strategy wasn’t based on any assumption of a favorable trend, but on competing where competing was hard. In other words, a strategy for exactly these circumstances.
Another sad irony is the DNC chairs who succeeded Dean and opted against his strategy for party-building were chosen by President Obama, who won with a strategy that was basically Dean’s. The trend of Democrats losing ground everywhere that’s safely read was actually bucked by the Obama campaign, which did better in red states in 2012 than Kerry did in 2004. The difference was quite small, but it was a small improvement rather than the big losses seen down the ballot.
In Minnesota, though Jacobson included us among states never seriously targeted by Republican presidential campaigns (I’m not sure that’s true, but let’s go with it), I think we know we’re not a safely blue state. We’re a purple state where the state Republicans are dysfunctional. It’s also the case the DFL is one of the stronger state Democratic parties. Maybe it’s feedback where the DFL took advantage of the MNGOP’s screw-ups, and the MNGOP screwed up when the DFL was best able to take advantage. That doesn’t mean it’s a permanent situation. Someone new to the state might see the Democrats holding most congressional seats, both houses of the state legislature, and every statewide elected office, and assume we can lumped in with Massachusetts and Maryland, but we can’t. This situation is new, and it’s going to take a bunch of work to maintain it.
At some point, both parties, if they want to form a stable governing majority, are going to realize that they can’t keep conceding huge areas, including whole states. I don’t know if this trend causes, is caused by, or has a common cause with the trend of both congressmen and state legislators voting more consistently with their parties, but unless something intervenes to change that, each party is going to have to figure out how to compete where it’s now weak. If only one party does this, it will have a huge advantage, if only from a more accurate understanding of the challenge in front of them. Had the 50-State Strategy not been abandoned, that would be us. In my series “Democrats need to do better with white voters”, I used population density as a way to identify districts that should be winnable, but it’s also a way to identify an underlying problem, that we’re losing where population densities are low. If Democrats crack the problem of winning low-density areas, we win a lot more often. If Republicans crack the problem of winning high-density areas, then they win a lot more often. That’s the real race we’re in.
For reference, the series on “Democrats need to do better with white voters”: