The Agenda

Ron Brownstein on the Sunbelt vs. the Rustbelt

Early on in this presidential campaign cycle, many observers, including Ron Brownstein and William Galston, had assumed that the Obama reelection campaign would rely more heavily on western states like Colorado, with its large number of college-educated voters, unmarried voters, and Latino voters, than on Midwestern states like Ohio. Consider the following from a May TNR article by Galston:

Early last year, I noted that Obama’s political advisors were tilting toward what I called a “Colorado strategy” for the reelection campaign. Their focus was on an emerging new Democratic majority—a coalition of young people, minorities, unmarried women, and upscale professionals. This tilt would come, I noted, at the expense of the “Ohio strategy”—my shorthand for an effort focused on retaining support from white working class voters.

To be sure, this tilt toward Colorado as the electoral template was intended as a matter of emphasis rather than a flat-out rejection of Ohio alternative. After all, Obama won both Colorado-type states and Ohio-type states in 2008. It seemed reasonable to suppose that he could fortify the Party’s new beachhead in the Rockies without jeopardizing his standing in the heartland, the traditional key to presidential contests.

The issue of gay marriage will test that optimism. Consider Ohio. The most recent Quinnipiac survey, conducted before the gay marriage announcement, showed the presidential race tied—Obama 45, Romney 44. (Adding Rob Portman to the Republican ticket moved the race to a dead heat, 45 to 45.) If the prospect of gay marriage antagonizes older conservatives more than it mobilizes younger liberals, Ohio could shift back into the Republican column.

Yet as Brownstein observes in a new column for Quartz, the race looks very different in its closing weeks:

“In some ways,” acknowledges one Democratic strategist close to the Obama campaign, “the Rustbelt states are better than they were for us four years ago and the Sunbelt states are tougher.” One measure of the shift: An NBC analysis of television advertising found that the Rustbelt contributed seven of the eight markets receiving the most spending last week, with only Denver cracking the list from the Sunbelt.

Brownstein’s explanation is that while older, blue-collar workers have been a relatively strong constituency for the GOP, a somewhat different dynamic has obtained in the Rustbelt due in light of Romney’s business experience:

“The reaction to Romney as a rich guy out for rich guys is stronger and deeper in the Rustbelt,” [Democratic pollster Geoff] Garin says. “The Rustbelt narrative is about people who closed down factories and moved them some place else and it’s a story that people associate with Romney.” Largely because that argument has proved so powerful, Obama is running much better with working-class whites in Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan than elsewhere in the country — and that difference represents his margin of advantage in these critical states.

But that imagery isn’t as resonant in Sunbelt states that don’t have the same history of industrial decline (except for Southern textile mills) and whose culture, especially in the Mountain West, is shaped more by risk-taking in pursuit of the next big thing. “Look around here, everything’s new,” said Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, as he stood this week at a Romney organizing rally on the rooftop patio of a trendy bar in the shadow of Denver’s gleaming Coors Field baseball stadium. “The [Bain] attacks are a dead argument here because people have been successful by … staking out on their own and creating a craft brewery, a tech company, a small manufacturing company.”

Romney’s critique of Barack Obama as “an irresponsible big-spending liberal who has dangerously bloated both the national debt and Washington’s reach” has thus had more resonance in the Sunbelt.  

There are two other implications of Brownstein’s analysis that might be of interest: (1) the salience of same-sex marriage as a voting issue has declined very quickly; and (2) college-educated social moderates seem to be more receptive to the GOP than one might have assumed they’d be back in 2008. These two developments are probably interrelated.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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