“Why Geography Makes It Difficult for Democrats to Get Along”

That’s the title the Washington Post gave this op-ed that Jonathan Rodden and I published today.  Here is an excerpt:

Democrats have engaged in a passionate debate leading into the midterms on Nov 6. “Progressives” argue that the path to victory this year and beyond lies in motivating their youthful urban base by moving the party to the left. “Pragmatic” centrists, on the other hand, argue that victory requires ideological moderation that will attract independents.

Paradoxically, both sides might be right, which is why this tension is unavoidable and likely to endure. To understand this, we must grasp how electoral geography shapes politics. President Trump won 230 congressional districts to Hillary Clinton’s 205, even though she outpolled him by more than 3 million votes nationwide. This reflects, in part, the fact that progressive voters are increasingly concentrated in the areas that make up urban congressional and state legislative districts, while moderates and conservatives are more evenly dispersed in exurban and rural districts.

As a result, in competitive states, the decisive voter in a statewide election is to the left of the decisive district. This means that a Democrat with a relatively progressive platform might be able to facilitate high turnout and win the statewide popular vote. But an identical platform would be too far left for the pivotal districts that determine the make-up of the state’s congressional delegation or state legislature.

To win control of Congress and state legislatures, Democrats must capture relatively conservative districts that support Republicans in presidential elections. Structurally, this is nothing new. Democrats have been relatively concentrated in urban districts since the New Deal, and for decades, their geography made it necessary for them to field congressional candidates who could win on “Republican” turf in the suburbs and countryside.

The Democrats achieved this not by nudging their platform to the left or right, but by avoiding a coherent platform altogether. . . .Democrats controlled Congress for decades, including during Republican presidencies, not because their party chose the right national platform, but because they allowed their candidates to craft local “brands” that differentiated them from the party’s urban candidates.

To be sure, the nationalization and polarization of elections might benefit Democrats in this cycle if enough Republicans and independents in pivotal districts cast “anti-Trump” votes for Democrats who would otherwise seem too far left. An exceptionally powerful wave election can overcome Democrats’ underlying geography problem and Republican partisan gerrymandering and thus enable victories in suburban districts that typically vote for Republican presidential candidates.

But any such wave is unlikely to wash the Democrats’ geography problems out to sea.. . .

To maintain control of the House or state legislatures beyond the isolated wave election, self-styled exurban and rural Democrats will feel the pressure to craft local brands that distance themselves from their party’s liberal reputation, even if that reputation serves the party well in winning the national or statewide popular vote.

Political geography — not just ideological conflict on its own — thus makes it likely that tensions between the progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic Party will endure.


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