The voters Democrats can't reach

Republicans don't live in John Edwards' "two Americas" -- they live in a third America, less polarized, where outside information doesn't get through. Democrats need to speak to the America they can reach about the issues it cares about: Jobs, Iraq and healthcare.

Published September 13, 2004 8:58PM (EDT)

Why does John Edwards' theme of "Two Americas" -- one prosperous and the other poor -- resonate with Democrats and earn scorn from Republicans? One reason may be that both Americas exist inside the Democratic Party. And while the Republican Party is run by plutocrats, its voters are largely suburban or rural, middle class -- and, of course, white. They live in a third America, for the most part.

The Democratic Party is a coalition of rich and poor. It has Robert Rubin alongside Charles Rangel, Nancy Pelosi alongside Maxine Waters. Urban professionals generally vote Democratic. So do working people, ethnic minorities and immigrants, for the most part.

Residents of the suburbs and the countryside generally vote Republican. They are, however, far from contented. Not being rich, they didn't get much from the Bush tax breaks -- and their property taxes went up. They pay for services that, they believe, flow to people unlike themselves. Meanwhile they make ends meet by borrowing against their houses. Their politics is fueled by resentment -- which is fed, of course, by drive-time radio on the commute to work.

The duality shows up on the map. At the University of Texas Inequality Project (you can check the Web site for technical details), we have measured the geographic component of income inequality across 3,150 counties for each year from 1969 to 2001. Recently we examined this measure in relation to the 2000 election.

A striking pattern emerges. States that are sharply divided, usually between major cities and lower-income hinterlands, are primarily Democratic. States that are either near the economic median or else sparsely populated tend to be Republican.

Of the top 14 most-polarized states (in order: New York, Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington, Maryland, Illinois, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Delaware and Minnesota), only one -- Virginia -- voted clearly for Bush. Of the 22 least-polarized states, only four (Iowa, Maine, Vermont and New Mexico) voted for Al Gore.

The six New England states are anomalies. They are small and closely linked to each other in political terms. It is therefore reasonable to treat those states as a single unit, in which case they are roughly as "geopolarized" as New Jersey. That may explain why they have become, for the most part, solidly Democratic.

Changing "geopolarization" may explain some big political trends. Thirty years ago, California was middle-class and rural -- and was a solidly Republican state. So was Oregon. Now the whole West Coast is split between a handful of counties -- places like Santa Clara or San Francisco in California and King County in Washington -- that have a lot of money and the many others that have much less. What's curious is that states undergoing this evolution find themselves increasingly Democratic. And in this respect, the West Coast now resembles the strongly Democratic East.

In the South, on the other hand, average incomes in many counties have been rising toward the national average. For this reason, the South contributes much less to national income inequality than it used to. In the process, Southerners have become Republican. The pattern may not continue. The most polarized Southern states are Virginia and Florida. Arguably, the Democrats could start winning Virginia someday soon. In the case of Florida, they already did in 2000 -- as well as in 1996. Over the past 20 years, Virginia has seen the largest increase in polarization among states Republicans usually win. Others drifting upward include Colorado, North Carolina, Missouri, Georgia and Arizona.

And as for the middle? Well, No. 23 on the scale is Ohio, which may say something. (Missouri is No. 18.) Ohio has become less polarized over time. That may make it tougher for Democrats to win.

On the map, the top 10 percent of counties -- the places where high incomes are most concentrated -- are colored green. The bottom 10 percent -- where low incomes are most concentrated -- are colored blue. States with a mixture of both blue and green are polarized. Those with either sparse populations or incomes close to the national average are colored red. An overlay marks the states Bush won (legitimately) in the 2000 election. Counties in the top and bottom 10 percent make up over 30 percent of all counties in states that Gore won, and only 13 percent in states won by Bush.

It's clear that while Gore won some third America states (notably Iowa), his strengths were in the other two Americas -- those that are both urban and rural, prosperous and poor, white, black and Hispanic. Kerry's strengths will be very much the same. (In their new book "The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro America," for which I consulted briefly, John Sperling and other economists present a similar theme.)

To a very large extent, economic geography is political destiny. Or, in other words, our politics now resemble World War I. It's total war on a fixed front, fought endlessly over a few hundred yards of ground.

Democrats should realize that, to a considerable extent, the Republican base lies behind their lines. It lives in a simplified world, cut off effectively and even voluntarily from outside information. For this reason, basing the campaign on the character defects and early history of Bush just won't work. This war isn't going to be decided by records from the Texas Air National Guard. Those who might care know already. And if they don't, they will never find out.

John Kerry and John Edwards must, therefore, speak to the two Americas they can reach. They must speak to the issues that the two Americas care about. These are predominantly the war in Iraq and jobs. Jobs and the war in Iraq. And as Democratic strategist James Carville said back in 1992, "don't forget healthcare." They must do this in just those places where a handful of votes can make the difference. Almost everything else is a distraction.

By James K. Galbraith

James K. Galbraith organized a conference on the “Crisis in the Eurozone” at the University of Texas at Austin on November 3-4. Papers and presentations can be found at, along with a video archive of the full meeting.

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