Op-Ed

Electoral Edge

William H. Frey

If the Democrats think they can come up with a strategy to win the White House without cracking the Sun Belt, they better hurry up.

If they think the Southern rise in Electoral College influence has made their life difficult, they ain’t seen nothing yet.

The recently Republican South and Southwest will constitute an even larger share of the nation’s voting strength as time passes.

Yet, the Republicans can’t stand pat either.

Census Bureau statisticians project astonishing population shifts and remarkable aging when they gaze into their crystal balls. The projected sizes of all state populations up to 2030 point up a challenge to the Democrats in the Sun Belt.

It also shows the Republicans need to pay attention to the Snow Belt, as its rapidly aging population could be turning it solid blue.

Much remains uncertain, of course, but some numbers I’ve developed underscore that big changes lie ahead.

The headline trends are striking.

First, the nation’s ongoing population shift from its Northeast and Midwest “Snow Belt” regions to its South and West “Sun Belt” will continue at a torrid pace.

In 25 years, nearly two of every three Americans will live in the Sun Belt.

“America Will Age Rapidly,” as USA Today had it on the front page. All parts of the country will begin to age quickly as the huge baby-boom generation advances to seniorhood.

Still, the most severe aging will occur in the Snow Belt, which will see overall declines it its young adults and children. The Sun Belt, in contrast, will see some “younging” along with its aging, as it attracts younger migrants from the Snow Belt along with more youthful immigrants.

It bears noticing that these impending population shifts will also profoundly affect national politics and alter the now-infamous red-and-blue map. This is because the all-important Electoral College map gets altered after each decennial census serves up a new national head count.

The 2008 presidential election will be the last one with the current Electoral College numbers.

What becomes clear, when adjusting the Electoral College in line with the new projections, is that the 60-year period from 1970 to 2030 will constitute a major transformation: from an era of near-Snow Belt-Sun Belt parity to one of sheer Sun Belt dominance.

When Richard Nixon was elected to his second term in 1972, the collective Sun Belt states held only a four-vote edge in the 538-vote Electoral College.

Nixon’s advisers showed shrewd demographic foresight when they launched their well-known “Southern strategy.” By the time George W. Bush was re-elected last year, the Sun Belt Electoral College advantage grew to 88 votes.

If the new projections are on target, this advantage will rise to 146 votes after the 2030 census.

The ongoing decline in fortunes for the nation’s most “establishment” states, as they lose clout to what used to be thought of as the “periphery,” is fairly dramatic.

From now to 2030, Texas and Florida will gain eight and nine new electors, respectively. During the same period, New York will lose six electors, while Pennsylvania and Ohio will each lose four.

Those are significant shifts in a deadlocked nation.

The logical next question, meanwhile, is what these trends imply for the future of America’s “red-blue” divide. Predicting this dynamic is hazardous at best. It involves speculation about the preferences of future generations and subgroups in each region, many of whom are not yet of voting age.

Will States Change Color?

Generation gaps on issues such as “moral values” are known to occur. Just ask any baby boomer. There is also the issue of whether blue state-to-red state migrants will adapt to—or change—the political sensibilities of their new state.

Will, for example, a large inflow of New Yorkers to Dixie serve to turn Georgia blue?

Throwing these cautions aside, I calculated what would happen if the 2004 state-by-state outcomes were simply carried forward to the 2030 Electoral College. Not surprisingly, red states ruled, in that scenario.

All else being equal, in 2030 the red-blue Electoral College vote would come to 303 to 235 (compared with 286 to 252 last November). This change is largely because of Snow Belt-to-Sun Belt demographic shifts: Such shifts portend the continued declines in electoral power of blue Snow Belt states, and large gains for red Sun Belt states.

Perhaps a more useful prognostication is one that builds on the notion of the “purple states”—those that were not won decisively by either Bush or Kerry (i.e., where the margin was less than 10 percent).

After all, we might be willing to wager that Massachusetts and Texas will not change their blue and red stripes for several elections down the road. But we would probably not make that wager for Ohio or Florida.

The 11 purple states in the Snow Belt could be the biggest question. They include large industrial heartland states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, which Kerry won relatively narrowly, and Ohio and Iowa, where Bush came out slightly ahead.

The 10 purple states in the Sun Belt are outnumbered by others in the region, but most are fast-growing and since this is the region where the in-migration and higher birthrates will occur, the demographics could affect their politics.

The “solid” red and blue states in each part of the county possess demographic profiles indelibly linked to each party’s base. The true-blue states in the Snow Belt, New York and most of New England, are coastal, urbanized, racially diverse states that represent the backbone of current Democratic support.

The solid-red part of the Snow Belt is comprised of mostly white, small community, culturally conservative states: Indiana, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas. The red and blue areas in the Sun Belt also differ from in predictable ways.

The only blue strongholds there, California, Maryland and the District of Columbia, are demographic and cultural cousins of the Snow Belt blues. In contrast, the Sun Belt reds are younger and more growth-oriented than their Northern counterparts and reflect the future Republican base.

Texas anchors these 17 states, which include fast-growing, suburban and small metropolitan states such as Georgia and North Carolina in the Southeast, and Arizona and Utah in the West.

GOP Ahead in Sun Belt

These red and blue strongholds aside, both the current and projected Electoral College tallies make plain that the purple states hold the key to future Democratic or Republican dominance.

Republicans are now well ahead in the Sun Belt, but Democrats could make strong gains nationally if they captured more of the Sun Belt purples. (Victories in Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico would, in fact, have captured the White House for John Kerry last November).

From now till 2030, Sun Belt purple states will gain 14 more electoral votes, more than offsetting the projected decline in blue Snow Belt states. The demographics among these states could also help a Democratic takeover. In the near-term, their population gains will be sparked by the growth of Hispanic-driven immigration and young people—two demographic groups that favored Kerry in the 2004 election.

By the same token, Republicans cannot be complacent with their showing in the Snow Belt. From now till 2030, this part of the country will age dramatically, fortifying the clout of constituencies for long-standing Democratic issues related to old-age security.

Democrats may make gains

The Democrats could make a clean sweep of the Snow Belt purple states without due Republican diligence. Despite the somewhat pessimistic Census Bureau projections for the Democrats, the purple states in this mature part of the country will still comprise 123 electoral votes 25 years from now.

Even then, the distinct regional interests associated with these states’ industrial histories, mostly black minorities and urban-rural divides will loom large in their politics.

Though there are inevitably huge unknowns in any quarter-century forecast, it is fairly safe to predict that the demographic changes ahead will present significant challenges for each major party.

The trickiest dilemmas for both parties will surely stem from the dual personality of Purple America. The interests of the rising, growth-oriented purple states of the Sun Belt will continue to clash with the aging, declining Snow Belt purples, perhaps more dramatically than ever before.

Yet, Electoral College projections show that each part of Purple America will matter greatly for the next several presidential elections, leaving to future political operatives the unenviable task of determining how to appeal to both simultaneously.

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