Vote clustering and political equilibrium

Michael Barone, always an insightful analyst of election data, has an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal where he talks about vote “clustering” – that is, the tendency of Democrats to accumulate immense political strength in urban areas.  Barone sees this giving the Democrats an advantage in presidential and Senate races, but handicapping them in the House, which explains much of the current executive and Congressional landscape:

What helped the Republicans more than redistricting was the tendency of Democratic voters to be clustered in black, Hispanic and “gentry liberal” neighborhoods in major metropolitan areas. This clustering has produced huge majorities that have made many large and medium-size states safely Democratic at the presidential level. Barack Obama won 56% or more in 13 states and the District of Columbia with 179 electoral votes, leaving him only 91 votes short of a majority. Mitt Romney, in contrast, won 56% or more in states with only 125 electoral votes.

But clustering works against Democrats in the House. According to figures compiled by Polidata Inc. for National Journal and “The Almanac of American Politics” (of which I am a co-author), Mr. Obama won 80% or more of the vote in 27 congressional districts and between 70% and 79% in 34 more. Mr. Romney won 80% in only one district and between 70% and 79% in 18 more. That left enough Republican votes spread around in the other 355 districts to enable Mr. Romney to carry 226 congressional districts to Obama’s 209.

All of the Democrats’ House popular-vote margin came from the 36 black-dominated and 31 Hispanic-dominated districts. Democrats carried the popular vote in black-dominated districts 80%-17% in 2012. They made significant gains in Hispanic-dominated districts, which George W. Bush lost by 11% but Mitt Romney lost by 32%. Mr. Bush’s “Family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande” is a more attractive message than Mr. Romney’s “self-deportation.”

The clustering phenomenon is obvious to anyone who watches election results arrive in real time.  Urban areas in state after state detonate like blue mushroom clouds, wiping out the sea of red counties surrounding them.  Those big-city political machines are very good at both organizing Democrat political strength, and getting voters to the polls.

One conclusion we might draw from this is a substantial advantage for Democrats in “meh” elections where the voters aren’t thrilled about either candidate, as in the 2012 presidential race, where enthusiasm on both sides flagged.  The Republican candidate will most likely have more to fear in such low-voltage races, because his voters are more likely to yawn and stay home… while the urban political machines grind relentlessly onward, pumping out busloads of votes.  (None of which should be inferred as inherently unscrupulous activity – I’m talking about generally above-board political organizing.  It’s a lot easier to run “get out the vote” operations in densely populated urban areas with long-established political machinery.  Ballot-box scams are a topic for another day.)

Barone sees something of a stalemate, or political “continuity” as he describes it, from these forces.  Contrary to talk of massive political realignments over the past few decades, both parties orbit 49 or 51 percent levels of overall support; it’s the distribution of such support across urban and rural areas that produces electoral drama.

After digesting Barone’s analysis, I wonder if this equilibrium will remain so durable in years to come.  Amnesty for illegal aliens, coupled with a continuing influx of illegal immigrants – because nothing in the current “comprehensive immigration reform” proposals will do anything practical to stop it, but they offer a great deal to encourage it – is likely to turn a couple of red states blue, and not just in clustered urban areas.

The future of those big cities is difficult to predict.  Will they continue to accumulate population – and Big Government policies that make the populace more likely to vote Democrat?  Or will people flee from decaying cities… and if they do, will they bring their Democrat voting habits with them?  Rather than bolstering the electoral strength of red suburban and rural counties, they might be just as likely to spread a blue virus, especially if they tend to “cluster” again, in exurban areas that offer the kind of development that appeals to former city dwellers.  It’s not surprising to find the longtime residents of large cities tend to accept high taxes, active government, centralized planning, and extensive regulation, to a greater degree than those who live in rural areas.

Barone’s prognosis finds the Republicans more aware of their electoral difficulties:

Neither party is doomed; both face challenges. Republicans have a clear problem with Hispanic voters, and many Republicans, including several with presidential aspirations, are addressing it by supporting immigration reform. House Republicans, only two of them from Hispanic-dominated districts, seem less interested.

Democrats have a clear problem with clustering. They cannot expect to improve on their performance with black voters in the two Obama elections, and they need to expand their appeal beyond their clusters of support to win congressional majorities. That may be difficult since their party tends to be defined, as it was not in the breakout years of 2006 and 2008, by a liberal incumbent president.

Republicans are trying to do something about their problems. Democrats, with their man in the White House, seem more complacent. But both parties have reason to feel insecure.

I wonder if he’s right about that.  Do the Democrats really need to change strategies to “expand their appeal beyond their clusters of support to win congressional majorities?”  Even if the equilibrium Barone describes persists for decades to come, Obama’s imperial presidency has gone a long way toward reducing the role of the House.  He might one day be succeeded by a better tactician, who can point to more “popular support” from those big electoral clusters, and have more success at stampeding House Republicans.  (Which is not to say that Obama has been without his successes.)

And even if that Republican effort to draw Hispanic voters with immigration reform succeeds – a highly dubious proposition – is that really a strategy that will break the stalemate in their favor?  It sounds like they might be better advised to direct their efforts at winning support from urban voters, rather than specific racial demographics.  A successful effort along these lines would bring support from many demographics at once, it wouldn’t seem like racial pandering, and it could have the great virtue of remaining fully consistent with conservative values.  After all, city dwellers have seen generations of unbroken Democrat governance lead to disaster.  Approached properly, they might be willing to consider alternatives.