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Redder? Bluer? Five Factors Should Provide Hints

By now, everyone’s heard about the “red-blue” divide in America — maybe even too much about it. Well, too bad. We’re here to answer the question on everyone’s lips: Is the red-blue divide in the United States widening ever further?

The answer doesn’t just lie in the obvious places, such as the final presidential tally nationwide. Rather, here are a few questions that political junkies can consider tonight that might elucidate whether America is becoming more of a divided nation or more of a ticket-splitting kind of place.

Question 1: What’s happening to the winning presidential margins in the very red states and the very blue states?

This question ignores the conventional wisdom of the past four years — namely, that the battleground states are everything in this election. For the moment, focus instead on the states that were never seriously lumped in with Battleground Nation, and which either backed both Bill Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore in 2000, or both Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000.

Looking back, each of the very red states gave Bush a bigger margin of victory than they gave Dole, because Dole was a relatively weak candidate, and because third-party candidate Ross Perot likely swiped some Republican votes in 1996. By contrast, most of the very blue states gave Clinton higher margins than Gore, though only by a couple of points. (Maryland alone bucked that trend.)

This election night, pay attention to the following: Do the very red states continue increasing their margins for Bush, or do those margins level off or even shrink? And do the very blue states give Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) comparatively modest margins like they gave Gore, or wider ones like those Clinton rang up? The answers to these two questions should move in tandem, and once we know the answers, they should give political junkies an idea about whether the red-blue chasm is growing or shrinking.

Question 2: A number of Democrats are running strong races for the Senate this fall. By how much will they outpace Kerry in their home states today?

If you look at the 2002 elections state by state, Democratic Senate candidates generally didn’t do much better than Gore did two years earlier. There were a few exceptions, of course, such as incumbent Sen. Tim Johnson in South Dakota and challenger Mark Pryor in Arkansas, both of whom ended up winning. But when everything is averaged out, the Democrats in competitive Senate races scored just 2 points better than Gore did in the same states two years earlier.

As Campaign 2004 neared its end, however, the Democrats running in competitive Senate races were doing surprisingly well. Such candidates as Tony Knowles in Alaska, Ken Salazar in Colorado, Erskine Bowles in North Carolina, Brad Carson in Oklahoma, Inez Tenenbaum in South Carolina and Sen. Tom Daschle in South Dakota were all running (depending on which poll you believe) 6 to 20 points better than Gore did in their state in 2000.

Will their good fortune hold up? No one knows yet. But whether they win or lose today — which, of course, remains the key question — it’s worth looking at the final percentage they get. If most or all of these candidates post double-digit improvements over Kerry’s score in their state, it will be evidence that many voters — even those in very red states — are willing to consider a Democratic candidate, and thus feel comfortable doing some serious ticket-splitting.

Conversely, if the Democratic hotshots turn out to be just flashes in the pan — managing, say, just a few points better than Kerry in their states — then one can infer a deepening chasm between blue and red.

Question 3: Will a higher percentage of House seats held by the “wrong” party revert to the “right” party this year?

This question addresses Republican-held House seats that happen to be located in very blue districts, and Democratic-held House seats that reside in very red districts.

For the sake of argument, we’ll exclude “marginal” seats, in which party performance, as measured by the Bush-Gore results in 2000, fell within 1 or 2 points of being even. We’ll only count open seats and incumbents who were in either “tossup,” “lean Democratic” or “lean Republican” races, according to handicapper Charlie Cook’s final pre-election analysis. And we’ll exclude seats in which redistricting pitted incumbents against each other, or in newly created new seats.

In 2002, six districts where the “wrong” party held the seat wound up flipping on Election Day, three in each party’s direction. The other seven did not. In 2004, there are a few more such seats being seriously contested — 15, to be exact. Will more than six switch this year? If so, the partisan divide might be increasing.

Question 4: Which party’s gubernatorial candidates win the following competitive races: Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Utah, Vermont and Washington?

If Democrats win in Montana and Utah (and to a lesser extent, North Carolina, where they have a strong incumbent running) it would be a sign that ticket-splitting is alive and well, since these states are reliably Republican on the presidential level. Similarly, if the Republicans can win Vermont or Washington, two states expected to side with Kerry, then the ticket-splitting would be in evidence. Also watch whether the presidential vote and the gubernatorial vote diverge in several swing states: Missouri, New Hampshire and Washington.

Question 5: Will the Republicans win or keep control of competitive state legislative chambers in Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee? And will Democrats do the same in Iowa, Maine, Oregon, Vermont and Washington?

These states account for the 20 legislative chambers that have been deemed “in play” by the Rothenberg Political Report. (In some states, both chambers are considered in play, and in others, only one is competitive.) This question assigns each of these states into either a Republican-leaning cluster or a Democratic-leaning cluster.

On election night, give 1 point for every chamber in a “Democratic” state that stays or becomes Democratic, and subtract a point for every one that moves in the Republicans’ direction. Make the equivalent tally for the chambers in the Republican grouping. If both numbers are positive, you’ll have evidence that the red-blue divide is growing.

Needless to say, none of these five factors will be as important as the biggies — who wins the presidency, who takes control of Congress and who secures power in the states. But the answers can help deepen your knowledge of the nation’s political state of play. You may even be able to impress your friends with the political arcana you’ve picked up.

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