Monday, November 13, 2006

Red vs. Blue Divide Not as Clear as Many Think

One of the reasons Democrats lost power in 1994 was that they lost the South. Now it appears that Republicans have just as completely lost New England. You would think that in a very mobile, highly connected society such as modern America, regional political divides would not be so sharp. And, you know what? They aren’t. It’s a mirage.

If you actually look at the maps and data from this election you’ll see a lot of red and blue mingling. If there’s any clear divide, it’s between urban areas and rural areas. But even that division is misleading. Delve into the specific votes from state-to-state and county-to-county and even the bluest blue states and the redest red states reveal there is much less than 100% unanimity. In fact, in even the least competitive districts, it’s unusual for a candidate to win with more than 70-75% of the vote. That’s a huge advantage to be sure, but 25% dissent is still very meaningful.

Furthermore, if you look at the key competitive races this year, the winners very rarely tallied more than 55%-60% of the vote. Clearly, the sharp divisions we think we see are actually statistical illusions created by our winner-takes-all, two-party system.

The media latches onto the simplistic analysis of blue vs. red because, well, the media trades in the unsophisticated and feeds on conflict. Politicians in turn exploit the blue vs. red because it provides them an easy us vs. them narrative. And we the people buy into it because we’re human and have a natural attraction to easy-to-understand patterns with clear divides.

I know I’m not making a new observation here—but I think it’s one that needs to be reinforced after the recent election. We shifted from a Republican Congress to a Democratic Congress not because of a tidal shift in public opinion but because just about 10-15% of us changed our minds. That’s a small percentage of the populous and Democrats should not mistake their win as anything more than a very cautious, narrow mandate – the identical kind of cautious, narrow mandate President Bush mistook for a sweeping validation of his agenda. And you see where Bush’s misreading of the electorate has gotten him.

Both parties and all us pundits (amateur and overpaid alike) should try harder to recognize the complexity within American political opinion. We need to avoid such simplistic storylines as “Democrats own New England” or “Republicans own the South.” Even if those analyses appear true, they’re actually quite inaccurate. The political divides in this nation are far more complex and individualistic than they once were and it’s unhelpful to pretend otherwise.

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