How complicated are electoral politics, really? For political writers like myself, it certainly is a help to act as though it is an extremely complicated business, since otherwise we would not have as much to write about. However, consider the following:
Michael Dukakis is widely viewed as having lost by a major landslide, while John Kerry is widely viewed as having lost a narrow election. However, looking through exit poll data, it appears that the two candidates performed almost identically among one of the larger demographic groups in the electorate: white voters. The only real difference between the outcome of the 1988 and 2004 elections does not seem to be that Kerry did any better among particularly demographic groups, but rather that demographic groups more favorable to Democrats formed a larger share of the electorate. In fact, Kerry actually did worse than Dukakis among Latinos. If John Kerry had won Latinos by the same 70%-30% margin that Dukakis did, then he would have at least pulled to within less than a percentage point on Bush, and possibly even won the popular vote. Further, whatever small gains Kerry made on Bush within white voters were possibly entirely due to sharply increasing secularism within the white electorate. Overall, it seems quite likely that Kerry would have won the 2004 election had he just performed as well as Dukakis among every ethnic and religious demographic in the electorate. Since he did not, it seems reasonable to assume that John Kerry was not a better candidate than Michael Dukakis.
Broad demographic changes that rendered the electorate both less white and less Christian had a significantly greater impact on the changing outcomes of the 1988 and 2004 election than did the quality of the candidates running, the issues of the time, or the strategies employed by the campaigns. Outside of these demographic shifts, everything else was pretty much a wash from 1988 to 2004. As I have repeated numerous times in the past, this trend will only continue. By 2012, when self-identified white Christians will probably only make up about 55-56% of the electorate (down from their current 63-64% total), unless ethnic and religious demographic groups start voting differently, the electorate will have shifted roughly another 3-4% in favor of Democrats. With that electorate, even a Democratic candidate with the skill of Michael Dukakis or John Kerry could win, and no Iraq war or economic downturn would be necessary.
This massive, underlying shift has a Republican precedent. Despite virtually no change in ideological self-identification among the electorate over the past forty years, Republicans were able to rise to electoral power basically just by swinging the once solid Democratic south into their column. More than half of all Republican gains in the House, Senate, Governors and electoral votes from 1964-2004 came from the eleven states that once formed the confederacy. Consider, for example, that after the 1964 elections, there were only 32 Republican Senators, but only one southern Republican Senator. After the 2004 elections, there were 55 Republican US Senators, and 18 southern Republican Senators. Only six of the twenty-three seats that shifted over those forty years came from the thirty-nine states outside the south, and even that small difference was wiped out in the 2006 elections. After 2008, Democrats will probably be doing even better outside the South than they were after the 1964 elections. Overall, apart from white southerners switching their partisan voting habits at the statewide and federal level, and the relative high population growth in the south compared to the rest of the country during that time period, not much else really changed in American electoral politics to cause the Republican rise to power. Pretty much the rest of the Republican gains can probably be chalked up to the collapse of union density in the American workplace.
Whenever I think about the southern shift of 1964-2000, and the more recent non-white and / or non-Christian shift from 1996 and on into the future, I wonder how much more there really is to say about American electoral politics. Or, at least, I wonder how much more there really is to say about American electoral politics in general elections for federal and statewide office. Outside of these mega-trends and major events that are localized either in time (such as a war or the economy) or in a given region (such as a corruption scandal or a favorite son candidate), everything else sometimes seems as though it might be playing with very, very narrow margins. In the end, what is actually really the agent of change, broad demographic shifts or strategic use of political machinery? For us activists and writers, we really want to think it is the latter, but in all likelihood it is probably the former. It is certainly somewhat disturbing and disempowering to think about politics this way, but in a country of this massive size, how can a small industry of only $10 billion a year--aka, the political industry--really make that much of a dent in our collective political attitudes? Politics makes up les than one-tenth of one percent of our national economy. I'm going to guess that the other 99.9% has slightly more impact on how we understand the world.
All of this makes me wonder sometimes if the most useful role the political activist can take is to do whatever possible to bring the broad trends that favor your coalition to fruition, while making sure that you don't do anything to increase your opponent's chances of the doing the same. In other words, just don't spit into the wind by, say, running electoral campaigns specifically targeting rising demographic groups like Latinos, Asians and non-Christians with negative, bigoted messaging. Perhaps, as I have wondered in the past, the more transformative, ideological activist is always working to change the culture of our schools, our workplaces, our media, and our modes of religious practice. A smart strategy might be to go along with the trends at the top, while always working to change the institutions that cause the trends at the foundation. None of this is probably as simple as I am making it out to be, but for those progressives out there who are disheartened by the 2008 presidential primary, or by the meager legislative consequences that seem to have come from the 2006 elections, perhaps it is useful to remember that there are other areas where it is possible to make a bigger impact on the ideological makeup of this country than in elections or even issue advocacy. Instead of playing in the electoral margins, perhaps it is more effective and stimulating to take direct aim at our larger cultural and ideological institutions. After all, if changes within those institutions can make an even less effective Democratic candidate than Michael Dukakis come within one state of the Presidency, they can't be simply shrugged away.