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A Superb New Map of American Politics

The Massachusetts think-tank that publishes Commonwealth magazine has gone beyond the borders of the Bay State to put out a regional analysis of U.S. politics that goes well-beyond the dance of the Red States and Blue states.

The article, with sidebars analyzing each region, is here.

The 10 regions created under this analysis are roughly equal in number of eligible voters. But the regions cut through states and in some cases are not even contiguous (the region called "Upper Coasts" includes the Portlands in Oregon and Maine, as well as Seattle, Boston, Northern California, and Vermont) so they're not the best way to understand what it takes to win the Electoral College. But as a way to see some of the basic dynamics underlying the shifts in the recent American politics, this is one of the freshest, most solid analyses I've seen in many years, probably since the introduction of serious cluster analysis into polling in the late 1980s, led by the Pew Center on the People, Press and Politics, which divided voters into groups based on their underlying attitudes.

The author, Robert David Sullivan, takes frequent, well-deserved shots at the kind of polling now being done using that kind of cluster analysis, particularly the artificial categories like "soccer moms," "office-park dads," and "wired workers" created in particular by the Clintons' favorite pollster, Mark Penn. This point can't be made often enough or strongly enough: these manufactured categories, which enrapture politicians, are very dangerous for understanding politics. That's because they have no fixed meaning. A pollster creates them out of a single poll, and then redefines them or drops them when they cease to seem useful. There's no history to test them against, no actual voting patterns to check.

And Penn's approach is being put to the test in the real world right now, in the sad campaign of Senator Joseph Lieberman, who has been convinced by Penn to position himself in a place where, simply put, there are no voters.

The gold standard in any analysis of American politics is county-level voting data, which is what this regional breakdown really is. (The lines defining the regions are county lines.) Unlike states, counties are usually relatively cohesive units, either urban or suburban, rich or poor. And the county data is real and can be tested over time. Anyone can talk about red states, blue states and swing states, but it takes a lot of discipline, data, and insight to understand the United States in terms of 3000 counties and their voting patterns. Kevin Phillips made his name with that sort of analysis, and I'm pretty sure Karl Rove is one of those people who can reel off county voting stats from memory, which is the source of his influence. Together with The Emerging Democratic Majority, this analysis is one of the few that can aggregate such a detailed analysis into a big picture that's reasonably accessible.

And kudos to Commonwealth for publishing this. It's a very good magazine that might be ready to reach beyond Massachusetts.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 15, 2003 | Permalink


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One region missing: the military and overseas voter.

Posted by: David Lloyd-Jones | Dec 21, 2003 7:03:30 PM

This looks a lot like an update of Joel Garreau's The Nine Nations Of North America. "Ecotopia" and "MexAmerica" are right there in green and red, as is "The Empty Quarter" with a few changes. The other regions have been mixed and matched, but that may be an artifact of Sullivan's wish to divide the country into ten population-equal parts. Is Indiana really all farm-belt in mentality and voting patterns? Even Gary and Indianapolis?

Posted by: Anthony | Dec 23, 2003 6:21:28 PM


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