JONATHAN CHAIT FEBRUARY 24, 2011
Bill Galston's piece for TNR yesterday expresses alarm about the Democrats' political prospects, not for the first time, yet I find the logic a bit confusing. Galston's alarm today centers around the prospect that Democrats will ignore Ohio and the Midwest in 2012 in order to pursue electoral votes in states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado.
Obama’s 2012 campaign will focus more on the Democratic periphery—territory newly won in 2008—than on the heartland, where elections have been won and lost for the past half-century. This could turn out to be a mistake of epic proportions. Why? Because the United States looks a lot more like Ohio than like Colorado. ...it is the closest state we have to a microcosm of the nation
First of all, as a Michigan native, I wish to strenuously emphasize that America is not like Ohio. If it was, I would be routinely be assaulted by illiterate drunks when I walked down the streets. Indeed the better question is whether Ohio is part of America at all. Ohio is where things like this happen:
Whereas America is a great country.
Second, I don't understand Galston's argument mathematically. His electoral college argument is rooted in tradition:
The seductiveness of the Colorado model is obvious. But the consequences of succumbing to it could be dire. The last Democrat to win the presidency without prevailing in Ohio was John F. Kennedy. The electoral college math worked only because he won South Carolina, Georgia, half of Alabama’s electoral votes, and even Texas, thanks to LBJ’s presence on the ticket. None of these states is remotely within Democratic reach today.
But there is a plausible electoral path without Ohio. Add one or two of Virginia, North Carolina, or Colorado to the base of states that Democrats have won in each of the last five presidential elections, and you have an electoral college majority. Just because Ohio used to be more Democratic than those states doesn't make it a more likely prospect today. Right now, Obama is doing better in those three states than in Ohio. So, what's the problem?
Now, Galston sort of implies that if Obama is running the kind of campaign that won't play in Ohio, it will hurt him in other Midwest states that he really does need. He is arguing, in other words, for a campaign aimed at blue collar whites:
Barack Obama’s path to reelection runs through Ohio and the Midwest, not around them. And that means taking seriously the concerns of the voters throughout the region who deserted Democrats in droves last year—Americans unlikely to be moved by an agenda of high-speed rail, cleaner energy, and educational reforms that rarely seem to yield good jobs for themselves or their children. Instead, ratcheting up efforts to boost exports would work better; so would toughening our line against the excesses of China’s economic nationalism. In addition, Obama should acknowledge clearly that no region has gained more from the administration’s forward-looking restructuring of the U.S. auto industry; and none would have lost more if the administration had allowed it to collapse. Despite the continuing unpopularity of this initiative nationwide, the administration might as well take credit and tout it full-throatedly. Obama should also use his proposed Infrastructure Bank as the leading edge of a program to “rebuild America” that would create large numbers of good jobs that can’t be exported.
Certainly, one option for Obama would be to target downscale whites by de-emphasizing liberal social issues and environmentalism and playing up economic populism and public investment. The odd thing is that Galston just co-authored a paper for Third Way urging Democrats to focus on moderates, who he called "the true presidential kingmakers." So what do moderates believe? According to Galston, they're "center-left on social issues, middle of the road on economics, and center-right on foreign policy." They have "lower regard for public investments" as an economic strategy. In other words, they're exactly the kind of upscale constituency found in higher-educated states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado, and they're explicitly hostile to the kind of campaign Galston is urging Obama to run in his TNR column.
For years, Democratic-affiliated strategists have been split between those urging a focus on socially conservative, economically populist downscale voters and those urging a focus on socially liberal, economically moderate upscale voters. These arguments generally take the reductive form of defining one segment of the electorate as the key swing vote and then urging a party to tailor its policies toward that constituency. Galston seems to be making two, mutually exclusive forms of this argument at once.
In any case, I think Obama as a personality type inherently appeals to upscale voters over downscale voters, and his attempts to court downscale white voters with economic populism have usually failed. But I don't quite follow Galston's argument even on its own terms.