Arlen Specter can read a map, an electoral map particularly. His switch to the Democratic party today is the continuing culmination of dual regional political realignments that have been going on over the last several decades. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won election to the Presidency by winning every southern state, a spine of states running up the Appalachians to New York, several Midwestern industrial states, and only one state west of the Mississippi (Texas). This was the last gasp of the old Democratic coalition, built on the “Solid South” and the Rust Belt.
That coalition was decisively fractured by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the subsequent Republican exploitation of disaffected white southerners. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” effectively made the Solid South solid for Republicans, not Democrats. Slowly, over the next several decades, the southern realignment meant the disappearance of southern Democrats at all levels. Southern Democratic Senators and Representatives lost elections, left for the GOP, or retired. By the late 1980s, the south was consistently voting Republican at a national level (with several exceptions). Pushed out of their traditional base, the Democratic Party faced an enormous challenge to establish a new base from which to fight elections. Without such a base, the Democrats would go into each Presidential cycle at a built-in deficit to the Republicans, as both Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis discovered.
The Democrats did have one advantage. The two bookend states of the electoral college, California and New York, were trending Democratic, and they brought with them nearly 100 electoral votes. Add to that midwestern states like Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and the Democrats had the start of a new coalition, one centered in the northeast, the middle west, and the west coast. But it took time to build it, and the GOP had a headstart with the South. In a preview of this new coalition, a Democratic candidate like Bill Clinton in 1992 could manage to win by taking the northeast, the midwest, and the far west, while still pulling a few southern states into the blue side (Georgia and Kentucky, for example). But eight years later, Al Gore could not even win his home state of Tennessee and the entire south went for George Bush (albeit Florida with some shadiness). The south was essentially redder than red at this point. The northeast, west, and midwest were trending Democratic but there were still states that waffled. Thus New Hampshire in 2000 went for Bush. Thus Iowa in 2004 went for Bush. The Democrats had the bones of a coalition in place, but the body remained to be filled out.
The election of 2004 confirmed the delicate balance. George W. Bush won by holding the states of the South, Great Plains, and Mountain West, and defeating John Kerry in Ohio, Florida, and Iowa. He won no states on the west coast. He won no states in the Northeast. Most ominously, he lost Pennsylvania, which suggested that the Democratic coalition was beginning to expand ever so slightly southward. In addition, the races in several mountain west states, like New Mexico, were close enough to suggest Republican vulnerability. The realignment continued in 2006, albeit at the Congressional level. Republicans in Northeastern states at both the House and Senate were clobbered. The northeastern states were becoming bluer than blue. Most critically and surprisingly, the Democrats managed a strong showing in some border states of the Old Confederacy, most notably Virginia, where Jim Webb eked out a Senatorial victory. Combine that with Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy, which pushed the Democratic Party to compete in all the states of the union, 2006 presaged a Presidential election in which, for the first time in a generation, the Democrats would have an advantage.
And 2008 confirmed that. Barack Obama carried the northeast easily, and won both Pennsylvania and Ohio by surprisingly large margins. The basic Democratic regions: northeast, industrial midwest, and west coast gave him 291 electoral votes, more than sufficient for victory. But Obama also previewed the expansion of that regional stronghold, by winning Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Nevada. On a Congressional level, the reallocation accelerated. Republicans have only 3 Representatives out of 29 from New York State. Northeastern Republican Senators have become a rare if moderate breed, equally as likely to be labeled
“RINOs” as they are to vote for a piece of Democratic legislature. Often, that is.
Arlen Specter seems to have realized–more quickly than Rick Santorum–that he was doomed as a Republican in Pennsylvania. He was moderate enough to have a fair shot in the general election, but the rump of the GOP left in the Keystone State was deeply conservative, both socially and fiscally. Polling was making it clear that he was not going to beat out Pat Toomey in the primary. On the Democratic side, Specter has a better chance. He has likely negotiated an agreement with the Democrats that no major league Democrats will take him on in the primary (read: Ed Rendell) and his conservatism plays well with a Pennsylvania Democratic population that remains quite moderate by national standards. This was Hillary Clinton’s state in the Democratic Presidential primaries, and Specter has to be counting on the same thing in 2010.