Blue Suburbia

Following an election, it's always good to check in with Rhodes Cook, my old coworker at CQ and author of an important political newsletter. We ...
by | December 12, 2006 AT 3:00 AM

Following an election, it's always good to check in with Rhodes Cook, my old coworker at CQ and author of an important political newsletter. We talked over the phone about very broad lessons from the 2006 elections -- not about what issues were important, but macro issues about targeting voters and the shape of the electoral map.

We talked, actually, not just about macro issues but microtargeting -- the big buzzword of this cycle. Both parties did their best to get individualized messages to specific voters based on what was known of their political inclinations and things like consumer habits. This was in contrast to the old model of targeting messages to precincts.

This all grew out of the sense, from the 2004 election, that Karl Rove had come up with a grand new strategy. Target messages to your base and you can win in an evenly divided electorate. As Rhodes notes, the old idea was that each party starts with about 40 percent support and fights over the remaining 20 percent in the middle. As has been widely noted, the middle -- the independents and moderates -- made their clout known in this year's elections, calling Rove's genius status into question.

"Each election forces one to revisit such topics as to what's effective in voter mobilization or who you aim at," Rhodes said. "It is surprising that they [the Republicans] went the other way and were as successful as they were as long as they were with this base strategy. You don't want to box yourself in so you can't make a good play for that 20 percent."

Writing off entire states is an even worse idea. The idea of states being primarily red or blue has been very popular, despite Governing's occasional protests. Rhodes notes that the presidential map has been very consistent for two elections, with only three states switching. All of these -- New Mexico, Iowa and New Hampshire -- are relatively small, and the margin of change in each was also small from 2000 to 2004.

"The '04 election seemed to confirm the '00 map," he said. "After all that money spent and intensity involved, not many states changed and they were small changes."

Rhodes says he hasn't given up on the idea he's long championed of the "Republican L." If you look at a map of states that are predominantly red, starting in the Mountain West and the Plains and turning right to take in the South, you'll see the L. Democrats can count on the coasts and then the battle is joined in the Upper Midwest. That was certainly the prevailing wisdom in 2004.

Will that change in 2008? Like other analysts, Rhodes sees some tattering of the L. The Republican strength in the South, and its importation of a Southern-style politics to the rest of the country, based on social issues and a low-tax, low-service government model, has hurt the party in states such as Colorado and Minnesota. The Republicans have also surrrendered virtually all strength in their old base in the Northeast (although Rhode Island and Connecticut continue to have Republican governors).

The big difference is not just between states, Rhodes says, but internal to states. Republicans count on rural voters, but they have lost momentum in the suburbs. The combination of an increasing share of the suburban vote and their continuing strength in cities was a big factor behind many Democratic wins this year, notably in Pennsylvania and Virginia, Rhodes said.

"That's the way I look at the maprs, particularly in larger states," he said. 'That's been another tradeoff for Republicans in aligning themselves too heavily with the South and Southern states."

Finally, we also talked some about the growth of new media, with sites such as YouTube, which made gaffes instantly transmittable on any occasion. Virginia Senator George Allen, of course, provided the most famous example with his "macaca moment."

"The '06 campaign showed that as long as there's a mike or camera around of any sort, a candidate has to be on guard, for better or worse."