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Is the Red-Blue Divide Growing or Narrowing?

So now the election’s all over except for the shouting. But what to make of the results? As we posed the question on Election Day, is the red-blue divide growing or narrowing? [IMGCAP(1)]

The topline results suggest the divide is at least holding its own. President Bush did indeed win a historic victory, breaking the 50 percent barrier for the first time since his father did so in 1988 and becoming the first president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 to win a second term while gaining seats in the House and the Senate. On all conventional benchmarks, the Republicans are justified to be crowing, and the Democrats are equally right to be sulking.

On the other hand, Bush’s popular-vote margin of 3 percentage points was (if one ignores the anomalous election of 2000) the slimmest since Jimmy Carter’s narrow victory in 1976. The other presidential victories since 1976 have ranged from 6 to 18 points. Even more striking, Bush’s Electoral College total was the lowest winning total since Woodrow Wilson’s second term in 1916.

Moreover, only a few states switched

their colors between 2002 and 2004 — only New Hampshire to the Democrats and New Mexico and Iowa to the Republicans.

Such results suggest that while many Americans strongly support the priorities of the president, an almost equivalent number do not, and feel just as strongly.

All this points to a continued strong divide between red and blue. Do our five factors agree?

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

A total of 18 states have voted for the GOP candidate in the past three presidential elections and were never considered battleground states this year. In all but three, Bush increased his winning margin between 2000 and 2004. (In Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, he saw his margin shrink by 1 to 4 points.)

All told, Bush increased his margins in these states by an average of 2.56 points over 2000. That’s less than Bush in 2000 increased his margins over Bob Dole’s in 1996 — his margins were 13.8 points better than Dole’s — but still a pretty strong improvement. The reddest states, by this measure, are certainly getting redder.

On the Democratic side, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) actually saw his margins shrink in the 11 very blue states. Only Vermont swung more heavily in Kerry’s direction than it did for Al Gore, doubling its winning margin from 10 points in 2000 to 20 points in 2004. Indeed, except for California, which gave both Gore and Kerry 11-point margins, every other very blue state provided Kerry with margins that were 2 to 10 points smaller than Gore’s.

It appears that such declines — for the most part, anyway — do not stem from antipathy to Kerry or his platform. Kerry received fewer raw votes than Gore in only three of these states (California, New York and Rhode Island). But in the other seven, the vote totals for the Democratic nominee rose even as his margins dropped. Apparently, Kerry was very good at turning out additional supporters. Bush just managed to win roughly 1.5 million more votes in the very blue states than he did in 2000.

Bush’s incremental success in most of the very blue states does suggest a marginal narrowing of the red-blue chasm. But Bush’s growing margin in red states, combined with the continuing large (if somewhat reduced) margins for Kerry in very blue states, suggests that the red-blue divide isn’t exactly melting into purple.

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 on Nov. 2?

Senate Democratic candidates in competitive races did pretty well this year. They just didn’t do well enough to win.

In 2002, Democratic Senate candidates in competitive races ran a paltry 2 points ahead of Gore’s 2000 vote in their states. This year, Democratic candidates ran an average of 5.7 points ahead of Kerry on Election Day. Tony Knowles ran 10 points ahead in Alaska. Dan Mongiardo ran 9 points ahead in Kentucky. Brad Carson ran 7 points ahead in Oklahoma. Tom Daschle ran 11 points ahead in South Dakota.

Of course, all lost. So while Democrats were successful in recruiting strong, plausible candidates for 2004, they just weren’t strong and plausible enough to win in such alien territory as Alaska, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina and South Dakota. Democrats can take some heart at winning a decent number of ticket-splitters and in electing a Senator in a red state — Ken Salazar in Colorado.

But it wasn’t enough to make a big difference. The divide stands.

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

The results in the House were actually rather similar in 2002 and 2004. While moderate Republicans like Christopher Shays and Rob Simmons of Connecticut and moderate Democrats like Dennis Moore (Kan.), Chet Edwards (Texas) and Jim Matheson (Utah) proved their ability to resist the tides swirling around them, other Members in both parties succumbed.

This year, Reps. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) and Max Burns (R-Ga.) were unseated by candidates of the district’s majority party. Open seats were seized by the dominant party in two districts — the Democrats took New York’s 27th district and the Republicans took Kentucky’s 4th. And Reps. Max Sandlin and Nick Lampson, two Texas Democrats given unfavorable map draws in 2003, were ousted.

That’s a total of six “flips” in the 14 competitive seats held by the “wrong” party. In 2002, six of 13 such seats flipped. This suggests at least a continuation of the red-blue divide.

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

Gubernatorial races have recently confounded the red-blue divide. Two years ago, Republicans won in historically Democratic states such as Hawaii and Maryland, while Democrats took over in GOP bastions such as Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming.

This year, Democrat Brian Schweitzer seized the Montana governorship, while Democrat Mike Easley won a second term in North Carolina and Republican Jim Douglas held on for another term in Vermont. Democrat Joe Manchin won election in West Virginia even as the state backed Bush for the second time.

Still, the other gubernatorial races this year appeared to reinforce the red-blue divide. Indiana “came home” by electing Republican Mitch Daniels following a run of Democratic governors. Missouri, a swing state but a two-time Bush backer, went for Republican Matt Blunt, while New Hampshire voters ousted an incumbent Republican in favor of Democrat John Lynch during the same election it shifted from Bush to Kerry.

So while the governorships remain more volatile than any other public office, several states saw their choices mirror the presidential vote closely this year.

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

State legislatures gave Democrats their one bright spot on Nov. 2. Four in-play chambers in the Democratic-leaning states switched to Democratic control (or from GOP control to a tie). Two other endangered Democratic chambers kept their majorities.

In the Republican-leaning states, four in-play chambers went Republican, but four were seized by the Democrats, and the Democrats held on to control in four other endangered chambers. This suggests more ticket-splitting than one would expect in a red-blue world. But when all five factors are tallied up, the broader divide — despite some chinks here and there — continues to hold.

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