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Why Tuesday's Democratic Primaries Matter

By Sean Trende - May 24, 2012

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When the "Emerging Democratic Majority" was written, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira suggested that the shift in the Mountain West would occur: New Mexico is rated “Solid Democratic,” Nevada is rated “Leans Democratic,” and Colorado and Arizona are “Leaning GOP, but competitive.” This probably worked out to be correct, if a bit under-optimistic in Colorado’s case.

But the trend in the Appalachian states was overlooked: West Virginia is “Leans Democratic,” Missouri is “Leans Democratic,” and Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee are “Leans GOP but competitive.”

Judis and Teixeira appropriately note that their predictions are conditional on a number of contingencies, but this is not an insignificant shift. The three Mountain West states -- four if we are generous and include Arizona -- comprise a total of 31 electoral votes and contain 23 House seats. Our states in Greater Appalachia comprise 47 electoral votes and contain 35 House seats, plus another 10 or so House seats in neighboring areas. In other words, by ceding these core Jacksonian states to the Republicans, Democrats are ceding about 20 percent of the House seats needed for a majority in exchange for 10 percent of the House seats needed for a majority.

To be sure, the Mountain West states have been growing, while Greater Appalachia has been in decline. But it will take about 30 years before these Mountain West states, including Arizona, equal our Jacksonian states in terms of the Electoral College. By that point, our political coalitions will have probably shifted a few more times, making it impossible to say who will get the better of the tradeoff in the long run.

In the short term, this tradeoff has had critical implications for recent Republican successes. Of the 63 seats Republicans picked up in 2010, 15 were in Greater Appalachia. Without these seats, their majority would be much slimmer, and Democrats would be only 10 seats from a majority, rather than 25. Many of these seats represent districts that Bill Clinton had been competitive in during the 1996 elections, but which have slipped away from his party since as the Democrats have become increasingly liberal, urban and culturally cosmopolitan.

This is the real reason Tuesday night's results are significant. I actually don’t think these voters are complete lost causes for the Democratic Party -- Republicans should be trembling at the prospect of a true populist like Brian Schweitzer of Montana running against Romney in 2016. But they do seem to be rejecting the Democratic standard-bearer for now. Given the sizable number of potential electoral votes at stake, this is not small potatoes. And the potential obstacles posed to Democratic attempts to take back the House stemming from this weakness are both real and substantial. 

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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