Brief Thoughts on the Changing Political Map

by Reihan Salam

Wrote a short piece for The Daily Beast today that briefly touched on how the terror threat might shape 2010.

One of the quirky things about the post-9/11 political landscape is the way national security issues subtly changed the electoral map. In 2004, when George W. Bush was supposedly the candidate of hard right evangelicals, he did far better than expected in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, where a decent number of middle-class suburbanites—including many Jewish and secular voters—decided that only trigger-happy Republicans intended to take the fight to the terrorists. Now, as Chris Dodd struggles to hold on to his Senate seat, you have Republican Rob Simmons, a CIA veteran, tearing into him for, in his words, sponsoring “an amendment that cut aviation security funding for explosive detective systems that may have prevented Abdulmutallab from ever boarding the plane and putting so many American lives at risk.” Ouch. Whether Simmons’s tough accusations are fair or not—I think they are—they’ll make a powerful 30-second spot. For those who cry foul, try to imagine a world in which the Rahm Emanuel of 2006 refused to use this massive foul-up against Republican incumbents as a matter of principle. There is, of course, plenty of time between now and November 2010 for memories of the Abdulmutallab incident to fade.

But if the threat of terrorism really does become a major issue in the midterms, it will reinforce another trend that doesn’t bode well for Democrats. President Obama has never done well with working-class white voters, and Republicans expect to make gains in districts where they represent an above-average share of the electorate. But as Ron Brownstein recently noted in the National Journal —citing the work of Democratic pollster Geoff Garin—college-educated whites, a key Obama constituency, seem to be souring on the president. Many of these middle and upper-middle-class voters are growing skeptical of the president’s economic agenda, fearing that it will mean bigger tax hikes than they saw coming during last year’s campaign. Michael Petrilli of the conservative Hoover Institution has argued that the GOP needs to win over “Whole Foods Republicans,” who can’t stand the culture war but who fret about the exploding national debt. What better way to draw these voters into a bigger tent than to promise a smarter, tougher, more effective approach to keeping frequent fliers safe and secure?

I go on to argue that Republicans are willing to make arguments that make Democrats squeamish on profiling, privacy, and other taboo issues, and that will be a hard advantage to neutralize, a case Jim Geraghty’s been making very convincingly at The Campaign Spot.

Just wanted to add a few more thoughts. Wendell Cox, a brilliant thinker on issues relating to transportation, demography, and much else besides, has a smart piece on how despite the hit the Sunbelt has taken in the recession, the 2000s were “the decade of the south.” There are a number of data gems in the article, including:

New York alone lost 1.65 million over the 2000-2009 period. This is, in absolute numbers, more than California and a larger percentage loss than Louisiana with Katrina and Rita. Critically, data through 2008 shows that most of the domestic migration losses came from New York City and to a lesser extent its suburbs. Upstate New York, which also missed the housing bubble, experienced comparatively modest domestic migration losses, as Ed McMahon and I showed in an Empire Center policy report earlier this year.

Of course, New York city didn’t experience a massive net loss due to the arrival of immigrants, who tend to be less affluent. Bloomberg’s heavy emphasis on the low-skill tourism and hospitality sector reflects this changing demographic mix.

And New York wasn’t alone. Most of the Northeast, but particularly New York, New Jersey, and Maryland, bled population to other regions, which has tended to mean that the receiving regions, e.g., northern Virginia and central Florida and Wake County in North Carolina, have grown more Democrat-friendly. This also means, however, that the regions left behind, like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, might become more Republican-friendly. Pat Toomey has a realistic shot.

Another important trend Cox flags is …

Slowing Migration: One of the principal stories out of this year’s Census release is that interstate domestic migration declined markedly in 2009. Indeed, domestic migration was lower than in any other year in the decade, but not by that much. In 2009, 500,000 people migrated between the states, compared to between 570,000 and 620,000 annually from 2001 to 2003. Then, from 2003 to 2007, interstate domestic migration was up to 1.25 million and averaged more than 900,000. The anomaly is not so much that domestic migration is down, but rather that domestic migration got so high in the middle part of the decade, at the very same time that house price differences reached unprecedented heights. It’s no wonder people were moving.

I tend to think that the housing bust has a potentially very big upside, insofar as it eases middle-class squeeze driven by soaring housing prices. That’s one reason why I’m so furious about various subsidies for homebuyer’s designed to prop up prices. Perhaps the next decade will see an economic revival in low-cost regions of the Northeast, like Upstate New York. But to pull off that feat, we’d need a dramatic overhaul of the tax and regulatory regime in those high-cost states, and that’s easier said than done.

Overall, Cox’s map gives me many reasons for optimism.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.