- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2007

DIVIDED AMERICA: THE FEROCIOUS POWER STRUGGLE IN AMERICAN POLITICS

By Earl Black and Merle Black, Simon & Schuster, $26, 286 pages

Winning control of the federal government comes down to persuading Midwestern whites to vote for your candidate.

That’s the thumbnail conclusion by political scientists Earl and Merle Black after they analyzed recent voting behavior in presidential and congressional elections. These veteran observers of contemporary politics rightly contend that you can’t figure out why elections have turned out as they have without understanding the country’s geographical distinctions.

Though the information contained in “Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics” will help readers understand contemporary politics, the overly academic writing style sometimes makes the material hard to penetrate.

Earl Black is a professor at Rice University; his twin brother, Merle, is a professor at Emory University. After breaking the country down into five regions — Northeast, South, Midwest, Great Plains/Mountains and Pacific Coast — they spend considerable time analyzing demographic information about the voters in those locales.

Because Democrats have a lock on the Northeast and Pacific Coast, while the Republicans have a solid hold on the Great Plains/Mountains and South, the fight for control of Congress and the White House will always be fierce.

Unfortunately, the book does not discuss last November’s elections, but the results of those contests back up the Blacks’ thesis. By adding to their strength in the Northeast (including Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island) and making significant gains in the Midwest (including Indiana, Iowa and Missouri) the Democrats recaptured control of both houses of Congress.

Those results don’t indicate a permanent realignment. Rather, they show what can happen when an opposition party runs a smart campaign that takes advantage of the weaknesses of the president and his party.

The Blacks note that the types of voters who support each party are the same in almost all regions. The Democrats do well among minorities, moderate Catholics and non-Christians. The Republican base generally includes whites, Protestants and conservative Catholics.

These trends have been apparent for the past several decades. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian who spoke openly of his faith, lost among white Southern Protestants 58 percent to 42 percent.

The Blacks contend that both Democrats and Republicans are minority parties among the electorate. The parties have “worked themselves into distinctive tight corners,” and the “increased ideological clarity within the Republican and Democratic parties has made the American party battle more divisive than in the past.”

The days of lopsided Electoral College victories among either party are long gone, according to the authors. The results of the last two elections certainly corroborate that.

Each party has maximized support from its base, so the key is reaching out to those on the other side of the aisle and independents. In the Midwest, 44 percent of the voters describe themselves as Republicans and 43 percent say they are Democrats.

That’s why you’ve had Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton talk about finding common ground with those who oppose abortion rights and Sen. John McCain talk about appealing to independents on issues such as campaign finance reform and global warming.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, their geographic strongholds are experiencing stagnant population growth and will have less clout in presidential elections and the House of Representatives.

The Blacks spend a great deal of time discussing the trends in voting behavior among different religious groups. They track the shift in loyalties of white Protestants and conservative Catholics and attribute those shifts largely to the political parties’ changing positions on cultural issues.

However, the authors also contend that steady economic growth in the South has made many white voters there (mostly conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics) wealthier and better educated, causing them to abandon their longtime loyalty to Democrats.

Their analysis would have been stronger had they made more of a distinction between those who regularly attend religious services and those who do not. That line of demarcation is generally the best predictor of voting behavior, according to exit polling.

Also, the book would appeal to a broader audience if the Blacks had included interviews with political strategists on how they try to reach swing voters.

Despite these shortcomings, “Divided America” is an important contribution toward our understanding of the complexities of the contemporary American electorate.

Claude R. Marx is a political columnist for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass., and author of a chapter on media and politics in the just-published book “The Sixth Year Itch.”

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