Economy undermines red-blue view

The red state/blue state fad is getting old and tired. My enthusiasm for this draw-and-quarter political theory is not waning simply because the number of red states is declining. It’s just that the underlying concept doesn’t fit the real world in which we live. The whole formulation seems bound by time, merely genuflecting to Karl Rove’s 2000 and 2004 “court the base” strategy that has failed to outlive its mastermind.

I also find the red-blue premise too predestinarian. It seems to deny free will in a manner that is neither American nor democratic. How can consultants possibly earn their keep if political outcomes are already dictated by a state’s color on someone’s map?

The utter failure of the entire premise is reflected in the growing number of so-called purple states. In a world where every living thing is supposed to be plant or animal, what would the scientists do if things started showing up that were neither? They would, of course, rationally dismiss the theory that everything falls into one of two categories. A new classification of life form would be promulgated, one that takes into account the most recent discoveries.

The economic issues that are likely to be central in the 2010 elections illustrate the inadequacy of the red-blue concept. Consider unemployment rates. The latest (June 2009) unemployment rate for the nation was 9.5 percent. In red states, it was 8.1 percent and in blue states it was a not-so-different 9.2 percent, hardly divergent enough to suggest that we’re talking about two different worlds. The purple states are somewhere in the middle, as we might expect, at 8.8 percent.

While these means are interesting, even they distort the utility of a red-blue theorem. Without getting into esoteric statistics like standard deviations and so forth, it’s useful to examine the range of unemployment experiences within the color groups. There are five low-ball red states, mostly in the Mountain West, that have unemployment rates below 6 percent. But there are seven red states with unemployment rates above 10 percent. Comparable discrepancies are evident within the blue states. Four have unemployment rates below 8 percent, while five have rates exceeding 10 percent.

Given these numbers, what is a red state strategy for unemployment messaging? Do you run against the powers that be, blaming them for unacceptably high unemployment? Or do you run against national policies, extolling your local policies as a better alternative to what’s happening in high-unemployment states? Of course, the answers depend on where you live, even if you are talking only of red states.

Some conservatives seem to think that we can push forward as national role models the red states that have Republican governors, lower taxes and right-to-work laws. It seems like that would be a decent strategy. But how do we explain that several of these —Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina — have double-digit unemployment (though only South Carolina’s rate exceeds the national average by a statistically significant amount)? In this same confusing and sometimes contradictory context, it’s worth a reminder that three other so-called red states with high unemployment — Kentucky (10.9 percent), North Carolina (11.0) and Tennessee (10.8) — have elected Democratic governors. Kentucky also has union shop laws.

In short, we cannot assume how the economy will treat voters simply because they reside in a red state. There are many more factors in the equation than a simple dichotomous red-blue explanation can handle.

Social scientists sometimes posit that a good theory is elegant in its simplicity. The red-blue model is certainly uncomplicated, but it’s too simple to be useful anymore. In fairness, the red-blue concept grew from post-election analyses, engendered by those wall-size maps produced by Election Data Services depicting election outcomes. But for a predictive, forward-looking model, let’s look elsewhere.

Hill is a member of the research faculty at Auburn University and has been a Republican pollster since 1984.