Stuck Between the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt

Are Democrats stuck between their past and their future?

Without rehashing the details of the 2016 election, let's return to some state-level results that may serve as a preview of what's to come in next year's contest and beyond.

The Electoral College system, that unique joy of American presidential politics, assigns 70 votes to five northern states that proved key to Donald Trump's victory: Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. All had successful histories as industrial and manufacturing powerhouses until the late 20th century, when globalization set off an era of factory closures, unemployment, and economic decline.

All were once well aligned with a national Democratic Party that had strong ties to organized labor (can you believe that Michael Dukakis easily won Iowa in 1988?). And with the exception of Ohio, which voted Republican in 2000 and 2004, all went for Democrats in at least five of the six presidential elections from 1992 to 2012.

Yet three years ago, each of those states went for Trump. Democrat Hillary Clinton garnered 45.8 percent of the votes cast across the five states. She did slightly better (47.2 percent) in the three most critical states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where her combined margin of defeat was less than 78,000 votes.

Today, as Democrats sort through their slowly dwindling field of candidates, one of the fundamental questions hanging over the primary is whether the eventual nominee should focus their attention on winning back the core Rust Belt trio representing 46 electoral votes, or whether it should pivot to a Sun Belt strategy centered on Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina (42 electoral votes). Clinton received 45.5 percent of the vote in those states, not far behind her mark in the aforementioned northern states.

The former path, consisting of states that are older and whiter than the country as a whole, is still appealing because Democrats made inroads there in the 2018 midterms and have a track record of success in each state.

The Sun Belt route is intriguing because Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina are younger and more diverse than the nation as a whole. What's more, each is growing rapidly, with Arizona ranked seventh among all states in population growth from 2010-18, North Carolina at 12th, and Georgia at 13th. That stands in contrast to slow growth in the north, where Wisconsin ranked 36th in population growth, Michigan 41st, and Pennsylvania 43rd.

Of course, recent elections have proved to be a mixed bag for Democrats in the Sun Belt states. The party picked up both a Senate and House seat in Arizona and gained a House seat in Georgia. However, Republicans won gubernatorial elections in Arizona and Georgia in 2018, and retain full control of house and senate chambers in all three states.

The frustrating truth for Democrats is that the Sun Belt trio may remain tantalizingly out of reach, at least for another presidential election cycle or two. The trouble is that the Rust Belt states continue to slowly slip away as the GOP embraces Trump's racially-charged populism, and Democrats shift to a younger, multiracial, highly educated, and heavily urban electorate.

Are Democrats stuck between their past and their future? - MS


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Podcasts for your holiday travel

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