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Creating a New Political Map

November 10, 1996|Sidney Blumenthal | Sidney Blumenthal is a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine. His most recent book is, "Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War" (HarperCollins)

WASHINGTON — Suddenly, the future of American politics appears in sharp relief, and it is literally nothing less than a map. If this map, like a transparency, were laid over a yellowing, antique one from 100 years ago, the patterns would fit almost exactly. Nearly all the same states would be on one side or the other. The important difference is that the states that voted Republican in 1896 virtually all voted Democratic in 1996, while the Democratic states of a century ago have shifted to Republican.

The Republican base, the states Bob Dole won, form a large "L." One stripe runs downward from the Canadian to the Mexican border, across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, from Montana to Texas; a lateral stripe stretches across the Deep South, extending to Virginia. It was on this base that the pre-Franklin D. Roosevelt Democrats maintained a fiercely competitive but minority status for decades.

The new Democratic base is the old coalition on which GOP supremacy rested from the Civil War to the New Deal. President Bill Clinton's victory has embraced the Northeast, the Midwest, the Pacific Coast and four Southern states, including the prize of Florida. If any region is solid, it is the Solid Northeast.

As a consequence of these splits, more than the government is divided, with the Congress in the hands of the GOP and the White House in the hands of the Democrats. The country is also distinctly divided by region, gender, race and religion. Out of the Tuesday's election, one uniform realignment has not emerged, putting one party in commanding control. Instead, a number of realignments have become pronounced.

There is not one national consensus, one majority, but two. It can be seen, for example, in the gender gap, with women favoring Clinton by 16 points over men. This election was not a case of ambivalent ticket-splitting, with the same people strategically deciding to support Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Only one voter in seven split tickets between Clinton and congressional Republicans. The country is divided--but the citizens are not schizophrenic.

Two evenly balanced parties have not come out of the election. It would be pleasing, for the sake of symmetry, if this were so, but it is not. Returns suggest that the Democratic Party, the Northern party, has emerged as the dominant presidential party and the Republican Party, the Southern-centered party, has become the congressional party. These are not the same things.

The flat national percentages for Clinton--49%--and for Dole--41%--do not go far to explain precisely who in the country the presidential parties lined up for whom. Clinton carried a majority of the voters in 21 states, many of them big ones. His margins tended to dwarf Dole: 34 points in Massachusetts, 28 points in New York, 17 points in Illinois, 13 points in California. Dole won only seven states by a majority, all small Western states, except for South Carolina.

The Republican hold over its part of the government, moreover, may be uneasy, especially in the House of Representatives. In fact, most of the gains of the GOP in the Senate, and the losses of the Republicans in the House, are directly traceable to North-South polarization.

In the Senate, the Republicans gained in absolute numbers by winning in Arkansas and Alabama. At the same time, GOP efforts to upset Democrats in three Northern states by using the word "liberal" as an epithet failed abysmally.

The race for the House also reflected the regional split. According to the latest count, the Democrats have picked up 22 seats, 19 from the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific Coast. In Massachusetts, both GOP congressmen were defeated; there is now not a single Republican in the delegation. Meanwhile, the Republicans offset these losses with 13 pickups, 11 of them concentrated in the South and border states.

The departure of Dole of Kansas removes the past from the current picture. He was the last of a Midwestern breed who had so long been in the leadership of the congressional Republicans. It is hardly happenstance that his successor as Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, is from Mississippi; this transition parallels the one in the House, in which Robert H. Michel, the old Republican of Illinois, gave way to Gingrich of Georgia.

The true power of the GOP coalition rests in the hands of the Southern congressional leadership. In the beginning, in the 1960s, the Republicans' Southern strategy was intended to exploit turmoil around the end of segregation as a way to break apart the Democratic Solid South. The fulfillment of the Southern strategy was supposed to augment the Republican position in the North--not undermine it.

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