(This was originally published late last week at DK Elections.)
Since this subject has been coming up often this week, I figured now's a good time to discuss this subject a little more in depth. The nation's demographics are continuing to change. However, those demographic changes are more pronounced in certain parts of the country. And I believe this will have a hand in what happens in this year's election.
We're already seeing it in the Presidential map. Two decades ago, no one would have described Colorado as a "Democratic leaning state" and West Virginia as a "Republican leaning state". But alas, that's where we're at now.
I also believe we're seeing this dynamic appear in the Congressional map. We have ancestrally Democratic districts in Appalachia that may still be winnable for Team Blue, but are becoming more difficult to hold. And then, we have the increasingly demographically diverse and culturally progressive "Acela Corridor" and "New West", and even to a certain extent in "The New South", that are full of opportunity, yet still pose some down-ballot problems for Democrats.
I firmly believe that we're in the midst of a major realignment. As social and economic attitudes continue to move in Democrats' direction in the above mentioned regions, the long term trends look great for Democrats in states like New Jersey, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada. Meanwhile in Appalachian and Ozark states, like West Virginia and Arkansas, the trends do not seem to be in our favor. Even while it looks like a progressive economic message should resonate there, cultural attitudes are still the primary stumbling block. This is why President Barack Obama's 2012 map doesn't quite resemble Bill Clinton's 1996 map.
So what does this all mean for the Congressional "state of play" for this year? Let me explain.
We have several districts in "The New West" that are ripe for the picking, but we can't take all of them for granted. In the new CA-52, for example, Coastal San Diegans care deeply about the local environment and favor marriage equality. Awesome! However, take a closer look at the voter registration numbers. Even though Obama won the district handily in 2008 and probably will again this year, Republicans still make the slight plurality of registered voters. And perhaps more importantly, the pool of "Decline to State" (what California calls independent) voters there continues to grow. This is why I doubt a Brian Schweitzer style "fire in the belly" populist would play very well here. Former San Diego City Council President Scott Peters, who's now running for Congress here, is probably the ideal ideological fit here (and I think has a great chance of defeating Brian Bilbray this fall).
My own district, NV-03, also poses a great opportunity for Democrats. It's "The Quintessential Swing District", yet a district that both President Obama and Senator Harry Reid have recently won. Women's rights, health care, and clean energy are among the many issues that GOP incumbent Joe Heck is simply out of step with Southern Nevadans on. But again, the two parties are at parity in voter registration and libertarian attitudes reign on issues like guns further complicate the playing field. Outgoing Assembly Speaker John Oceguera has a lot of juggling to do going forward, but it increasingly looks like he's up to the task.
Candidates in districts like CA-52 and NV-03 are smart to run with President Obama and point out that Obama needs more allies in Congress to get stuff done. In most Appalachian and Ozark districts, however, Democratic candidates can't do that. Here's where it gets tricky. On one hand, voters in districts like PA-12 and WV-01 are much more accustomed to voting "straight ticket Democrat" down the ballot than voters in CA-52 and NV-03. But on the other hand, hostility towards not just President Obama, but also affinity for "TEH CUL'CHUR WARZZZ!!!", complicates matters. Even though voters in these areas still identify with a more progressive economic vision, opposition to key progressive goals, like marriage equality and comprehensive climate change action, forces Democrats there to run as those pesky "Blue Dogs" that the progressive base always has problems with. In this kind of political climate when economic issues are front and center, Democrats probably still have plenty of opportunities in several of these Appalachian and Ozark districts. But going forward, the demographics of these regions (mainly, that they're older and whiter than the rest of the country) will make holding these seats more challenging in the future.
So if anyone was wondering why I focus so much on demographics and trends, I hope this better explains it.