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THE NATION | Ronald Brownstein / WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Democrats Covet the West, but Can't Keep Losing the South

May 16, 2005|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times' website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.

Since President Bush's narrow reelection in November, many Democrats have looked longingly to the Mountain West as the party's best opportunity to rebuild an electoral college majority. And in the years ahead, states such as Colorado, Arizona and Nevada may indeed become more competitive political battlefields.

But new long-term population projections from the Census Bureau show that anyone who believes Democrats can consistently win the White House without puncturing the Republican dominance across the South is just whistling Dixie. The census projections present Democrats with an ominous equation: the South is growing in electoral clout even as the Republican hold on the region solidifies.

Veteran demographer William H. Frey, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, this month extrapolated the census numbers into projections for the electoral college over the next quarter century. His conclusions, in a paper titled "The Electoral College Moves to the Sun Belt," framed challenges for both parties but raised the toughest questions for Democrats.

Overall, Frey forecast a continued shift in influence from "blue" states where Democrats have run best, primarily in the Northeast and Midwest, to "red" Sunbelt states that mostly have voted Republican in presidential elections since the 1960s.

The shift isn't precipitous, but it appears inexorable. In 2004, Bush won 286 electoral college votes, while Democrat John F. Kerry tallied 252 (with 270 needed for victory). Frey projects that after the 2010 census, four electoral college votes will shift from Kerry states to Bush states.

Even a change that subtle could have dramatic consequences. In 2004, as Kerry reminds audiences, the senator from Massachusetts could have won the White House by moving Ohio to his column; by Frey's projections, that would no longer be true in 2012 (partly because Ohio would fall from 20 to 18 electoral college votes).

Frey's analysis shows the tilt toward the Sunbelt continuing decade by decade. By 2030, he forecasts, the Democratic strongholds of New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Massachusetts and Michigan would lose a combined 17 electoral college votes. Over that same period, Florida (up nine, to 36) and Texas (up eight, to 42) could gain that many votes alone. Arizona (up five, to 15), which has voted Democratic for president once since 1952, would be the other big winner.

The only Democratic bastion likely to increase in strength is California, which Frey projects would gain one electoral college vote (to 56) after 2010, and another after 2030.

Obviously, no one should place too much weight on projections this distant. The actual totals for each state are almost certain to vary from Frey's forecasts. But few doubt the validity of the basic trend he presents -- or the vise it creates for Democrats.

In 2000 and 2004, Bush won all 11 states of the old Confederacy, plus Oklahoma and Kentucky. In those two elections it netted him 168 electoral college votes. That meant Democrats had to win about 73% of the remaining votes to secure a majority -- a hurdle they found a little too high each time.

Frey projects that those 13 Southern states would cast 173 electoral college votes after 2010, and account for 186 after the 2030 census. If Republicans can still sweep the South at that point, Democrats would need to win a daunting 77% of the remaining votes to construct a majority.

Victories in the West might temporarily help Democrats offset the South's rising influence. But it doesn't seem a long-term solution.

In 2004, Kerry competed for four Mountain West states -- Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. Winning any three of those would have elected him. But Frey projects that over the next quarter century, those four states will gain just seven votes, with almost all of the increase coming in Arizona, where Bush ran better in 2004 than in 2000.

The big lesson for Democrats from these numbers is that there is no substitute for restoring the party's competitiveness in at least some of the South -- particularly Florida and states such as Arkansas, Virginia and Tennessee.

"You can't get wiped out," says Democratic opinion analyst Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress. "These trends just put an exclamation point on that idea. You don't want to cede huge blocks of states to the other side -- especially states whose electoral vote is increasing."

There's a warning sign for Republicans too. The three big projected electoral college winners -- Florida, Texas and Arizona -- all have large and growing Latino populations.

So far, the increase in Latino voters has lagged well behind the population growth, blunting their effect. But Terry Nelson, the political director for Bush's reelection campaign, says the demographic shift could move those states away from the GOP unless Republicans can sustain the gains Bush made with Latinos in 2004. "The big question," Nelson says, "is can we continue to be competitive with the changing population?"

Frey offers another wild card. Seniors over time will constitute a larger share of the population in the big Midwest battlegrounds, he notes. So while the loss of electoral college clout in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan will hurt Democrats, he thinks the region's overall graying might create a more receptive audience for Democratic economic security messages in states leaning Republican, such as Missouri and Ohio.

There are enough crosscurrents to discourage any simple assumption that demographic change guarantees Republican continuity in the White House. But one conclusion seems inescapable: Democrats need to expand their map. The states that favor them are shrinking in influence -- which means the party will too unless it can challenge the Republican hold on the states, especially in the South, adding population and votes with each passing day.

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