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By Jay Cost

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Democrats, Keep the Filibuster!

Ever since the Democrats failed to get the public option through the Senate, liberals have been advocating the effective elimination of the filibuster.

As I have written before, I am deeply opposed to changes in the filibuster. Its use has increased in the last 30 years, sure, but American politics has become much more divisive. We battle over a whole host of economic and cultural issues that did not divide us in the past. As the country has sorted itself into two distinct, roughly equally sized groups, the filibuster has become an important tool to keep a fleeting majority from running the table on a large minority.

But put aside the question of how to maintain ideological balance in a diverse republic, and eliminating the filibuster is still not such a good idea for Democrats. In fact, it's a really bad idea.

Let me explain.

Two relevant changes have occurred in the world of partisan alignments since 1948: the Mountain West returned to the Republican fold after a half century of on-again, off-again flirtation with Populism/Progressivism, and the South converted to Republicanism.

Start with the Mountain West - Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. In the first half of the century, Democratic populists and progressives carried the party to victory there. William Jennings Bryan swept the region in 1896. Woodrow Wilson won every Mountain West state except Utah in 1912. He went eight-for-eight in the region in 1916. FDR swept it twice, then went seven-for-eight and six-for-eight. Harry Truman swept the region in 1948.

However, the New Deal realignment transformed the Democrats into a primarily urban party, which has meant that subsequent candidates did more poorly in the Mountain West, even when they have won the White House. Kennedy won just two of eight Mountain West states in 1960. Carter won zero. Despite Ross Perot's siphoning Republican-leaners in the region, Clinton won just four Mountain West states in 1992, then three in 1996. Obama also won just three.

Victorious Republicans, meanwhile, have carried the Mountain West with ease. Ike swept it both times. So did Nixon and Reagan. So did George H.W. Bush in 1988. George W. Bush lost only New Mexico, by a hair's breadth, in 2000; then he swept the region in 2004. All in all, the Mountain West has a Republican tilt to it. Add to this region its neighbors - Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, all of which have been Republican since they were brought into the Union - and GOP presidential candidates can usually count on something between 9 and 12 states going their way in this part of the country, even when they get shellacked nationwide.

The party also now enjoys a solid haul from the South and Border States. As the Democrats became a party of urban liberals ala Robert Wagner, the South started leaving the party. Franklin Roosevelt was the last Democrat to sweep the old Confederacy. The big change happened in 1972 when Nixon became the first Republican ever to sweep Dixie. Reagan nearly managed that feat in 1980, carrying every state but Georgia. That was a sign of the times: Dixie voted for a Western Republican over a Southern Democrat. In 1996 Bob Dole of Kansas defeated Bill Clinton of Arkansas in 7 of the 11 states of the old Confederacy. George W. Bush swept the South twice. And even though he lost the nationwide popular vote by 7.3 points, McCain still held 8 of the 11 states of the old Confederacy. A similar trend has occurred in the border states of Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. All three once leaned Democratic, yet all three voted for John McCain by wide margins in 2008.

Becoming the party of the big cities has been a better than even trade for the Democrats, who now regularly win electoral-rich California, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania (all of which used to lean Republican), and New York (which for more than a century was the quintessential swing state). Combined, these five states have 145 Electoral Votes, compared to just 44 in the Mountain West. The Democrats have also managed to stay competitive in "New South" and "New West" states, notably Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia. In an even year, these states should all vote Republican - but Democrats have strong bases of support that can flip them in years when their national advantage is large enough.

The net effect of these changes leaves the Democrats in a much stronger position to win the Presidency and the House than they were prior to 1932. On balance, FDR did the party a big favor by moving it from the country into the city. Yet it means the Democratic party is relatively weak in the Senate, which is biased in favor of the small, rural states that now typically go Republican.

We can quantify this in a couple of ways. First, we can look at how many states winning Republican candidates carry versus winning Democrats. George W. Bush won 30 states in 2000 (despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore), then 31 states in 2004. Clinton won 32 states in 1992, but his margin of victory that year was three points larger than Bush's in 2004. Clinton's margin of victory over Dole in 1996 was similar to Reagan's margin over Carter in 1980, yet Clinton won 31 states to Reagan's 44. Obama's popular vote share was similar to George H.W. Bush's in 1988, yet the elder Bush carried 40 states while Obama won 28. Generally speaking, when the GOP wins the presidency, it tends to do so with many more states supporting it than do the Democrats. That points to a GOP advantage for control of the Senate.

Second, we can compare the GOP's nationwide performance against its performance in the median state. In the last 40 years, the Republicans have won the nationwide presidential popular vote by an average margin of 3.5%. Meanwhile, they defeated the Democrats in the median state by an average margin of 6.4%. Here's the breakdown by year:

Keep the Filibuster.jpg

Just to be clear, the "median state" is theoretically the state that has half of the states voting more Democratic, and half voting more Republican. Because there are an even number of states, it is actually the average of the 25th and 26th states, which in 2008 were Ohio and Florida. (In 2004, they were Florida and Missouri.)

In every presidential cycle except 1980, the Republican presidential candidate did better in the median state than he did nationwide. This is because of the GOP dominance in the small states - especially those in the Mountain West and the South, which have moved to the right since World War II.

Call this the Republican small state bias. It has two vital implications for the Senate:

(a) To control the Senate in an evenly balanced year, the Democrats must persuade Republican presidential voters to support Democratic candidates for the Senate. In 2004, Democrats won five Senate seats in states that Bush carried: Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Nevada, and North Dakota. On average, the winning Democrat in these states carried 29% of the Bush voters.

(b) As cross-over voting has declined in the last 30 years, (a) has become harder to do. So on average we see a Republican-controlled Senate. Over the last thirty years, the Republicans have gone into the new Congress with a Senate majority 8 1/2 times compared to 6 1/2 times for the Democrats (control of the Senate was split in the 107th Congress).

What this suggests is that the Democrats stand - on balance - to make greater use of the filibuster than do Republicans.

Such use might come sooner rather than later. With the unemployment rate likely to remain high, President Obama should be in for a tough reelection battle in two years. If he loses, expect Congress to go fully Republican. Do Democrats really want to ditch the filibuster now? A full Republican government minus the filibuster would give the Republican Party more power in 2013 than it has had at any point since 1930. Not only would ObamaCare be dug up root-and-branch (on the day the 45th President is sworn in), but the Republicans would surely try to limit the power of crucial Democratic interest groups, above all the labor unions. Without the filibuster, what's to stop them?

Democrats, do yourselves a favor: keep the filibuster. You're gonna need it.

-Jay Cost