Will: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics

"Look at him," said Casey Stengel, expressing incomprehension about a clean-living pitcher. "He don't smoke, he don't drink, he don't chase women and he don't win." In politics, too, winning is the objective. Today, both parties have an unusually small number of kamikaze activists—people willing, even eager, to go down in flames with a presidential candidate they consider so ideologically lovely that they do not care that he or she probably cannot cobble together 270 electoral votes.

Both parties must calculate how much would, or should, this or that facet of a candidate's political program be an impediment to his or her winning the presidency. Today, as usual, but in unusual ways, such calculations must be guided by this rule: Think regionally.

The nation long ago removed such impediments to voting as property requirements, poll taxes and literacy tests. Perhaps we should add one: No one should be allowed to vote until he or she has driven across the country. Why? Because voters should understand the nature of regional differences. Why the regions matter is the subject of a new book, "Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics," by Earl Black and Merle Black, political scientists at Rice and Emory universities, respectively.

The story of American politics in the 20th century was the Great Reversal, with Democrats becoming the party of the North and Republicans the party of the South. In the century after the election of the first Republican president, the GOP remained an entirely Northern institution. In 1960, there was no Republican senator from the South. In 1952, the last time before 1994 that the GOP captured control of the House, it won 51 percent of the seats by winning 65 percent of Northern seats but just 6 percent of Southern seats.

In Bill Clinton's 1992 victory, for the first time in history, the Blacks note, a Democrat won the presidency without carrying the South. In 2000, for the first time, a Republican won the White House while losing the North. Al Gore would have won if he had received any Southern electoral votes. In 2004, Ohio was the only large state George W. Bush won outside of the South. John Kerry won all the Northeast's 117 electoral votes, and 65 percent of the Northern electoral votes. But he needed 70 percent because Bush again won 100 percent of the South's electoral votes. In nine of the 10 elections between 1952 and 1988 (all but 1964), Republicans carried California. Since 1988, they have lost California four times, by an average of 11 percentage points.

Today, the Blacks argue, neither party can win a national majority simply by sweeping its regional strongholds—the Democrats' in the Northeast and Pacific coast, the Republicans' in the South and mountain/plains. So the parties "are locked in a power struggle in which victory or defeat is possible in every round of elections for every national institution."

And the Midwest, with 22 percent (120) of the nation's electoral votes, is well positioned to determine the winner. Today, in the 10 states that the Blacks include in that region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, Wisconsin), Democrats hold 6 of the governorships and 13 of the Senate seats, and Republicans hold 51 of the 100 House seats.

The parties have become more ideologically distinct and homogenous. The Blacks say that in the 1990s, for the first time, racial and ethnic minorities and non-Christian whites became the largest component of the Democratic Party. In the 2002 and 2004 elections, for the first time ever, majorities of white Protestants, women as well as men, voted Republican. Self-identified conservatives are 66 percent of Republicans, up from 52 percent in three decades. Three decades ago only 37 percent of Democrats were liberals; today 63 percent are white liberals or minorities.

Regional differences are durable but not eternal. In 2005, Virginia (13 electoral votes) elected a Democratic governor and in 2006, a Democratic senator. Can Democrats realistically hope to put that state, which has voted Republican in 10 consecutive presidential elections, in play? The Democrats' 2008 candidate will have to decide whether to wager time and money in the attempt to do so. The Blacks believe that the Republican Party has been "rebranded" because "the principal group" attracted by its conservative message is evangelical white Protestants. This rebranding has weakened the GOP in, among other places, California (55 electoral votes). Republican primary voters around the nation may weigh the possibility that John McCain or Rudy Giuliani could put it in play.

The few kamikaze activists in each party might think their favorite candidate is so fabulous he or she can change the realities of regional differences. They might think: If the partisan alignments of the regions were to change, my candidate could win. But, then, as a sportswriter said about a Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, "Rex Barney would be the league's best pitcher if the plate were high and outside."

Join the Discussion