Sunday, November 15, 2015

Bernie's Biggest Liability

I have long been a fan of Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Senator who is one of the few reliable and consistent voices speaking on behalf of rising inequality and the declining middle class.  And Sanders has been doing this long before it became a part of the national political narrative, in fact being more responsible than just about anyone else for catapulting the topic into the national conversation.  But I nonetheless see his 2016 Presidential candidacy as a double-edged sword for the Democratic Party.

On the upside, his presence on the campaign trail is imperative in keeping income inequality, the biggest societal dilemma of our time, at the forefront of the conversation when interest group politics could otherwise completely obscure the issue.  Enough ink is already being spilled about divisive and counterproductive (for Democrats' general election viability at least) issues such as gun control and illegal immigration, and if Sanders wasn't in the race, even more ink and debate conversation would be dedicated to these topics.  Sanders' presence in the race also puts the party's most likely nominee, Hillary Clinton, on notice to keep the inequality topic from slipping out of the conversation in the general election and to square her personal and political ties to Wall Street early on rather than being unprepared for it when it's an inevitable general election issue by the Republicans.

On the downside, above all else, Bernie's self-admitted ties to "socialism" would almost inevitably be a scarlet letter among a general electorate in a country that still associates socialism with the epic Cold War battle with the Soviets.  Obviously, Sanders doesn't have a stereotypically Presidential look or demeanor which would ordinarily be a drawback as well, even though I think at least at this stage of the campaign, his rumpled man-of-the-people shtick is working to his advantage and given the endless appetite for a fresh approach, it might work to his advantage as a general election nominee as well.  But his biggest fundamental problem is still the "S" word that's been next to his name throughout his three-decade career in elected office.  To be sure, there could at some point emerge a time and place where a self-proclaimed socialist could thrive in American politics, but it would take a crisis.... 

Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal revolution that began in 1933 would have been an inconceivable proposition in a right-leaning, market-driven society like America has always been even five years earlier, but desperation among the masses created an environment where FDR's quasi-socialist approach to governing found an audience.  Unfortunately, I suspect it would take a similar environment for the public to fully embrace what Sanders is peddling today.  Even though there's a national consensus that the middle class is crumbling and that income inequality is a growing problem, there is no sense of urgency to remedy it the way there was in 1932 and there's definitely no consensus on the source or solution to the problem.  The white working class demographic of voters most responsible for fueling FDR's New Deal coalition would today be more likely to point the finger at their own "welfare bum" neighbor as the driving force of the problem rather than the kind of structural breakdown in the distribution of economic rewards that Bernie Sanders is talking about.  It's just impossible to believe that the public is where it needs to be for Sanders' message to resonate with a majority of American voters, and as I said last week, without a serious presence of organized labor to echo the Sanders' campaign sentiment to tens of millions of voters the way it could have a generation ago when union affiliation was much higher, the message's reach is limited.

Taking the electoral analysis out of the equation, I'll also confess to drifting from Bernie's message in recent weeks on a policy front.  Much as his rhetoric is red meat for an old-school labor Democrat like myself, it hadn't really hit me how large he intends to grow the federal government's footprint until the first debate, confirming that he's not merely a "socialist in name only" in a way I hadn't appreciated having mainly listened to his stump speeches up to that point, but an actual "socialist".  I've grown a little wary of the virtues of the federal government as I've gotten older and would prefer to recreate an environment where union-fueled middle class wages in the private sector reduce the need for an enlarged safety net, rather than simply accepting that inequality will keep getting worse and that a growing role of government is the only antidote.  Much as Bernie talks about fixing inequality, it occurs to me that he's proposing doing so largely through substantially increased wealth transfers and often invokes "Denmark" as a model society.

Now in some sense I could get behind a societal push to become more like Denmark, but Bernie's biggest shortcoming is that he is not calling for the widespread sacrifice that "being more like Denmark" would entail.  To hear Sanders talk, most of his policy wish list could be achieved through higher taxes on the 1%.  While I'm all for that, Denmark didn't become Denmark by raising taxes only on the top 1%.  If Sanders' agenda was to be even remotely affordable, he'd have to reach deep into middle class pockets to finance it.  Again, I'm not fundamentally opposed to this.  I've long advocated higher income tax rates on the upper middle class and believe that if the new rates imposed on households earning more than $400,000 applied to households earning more than $100,000 a year, we'd have a budget surplus right now.  But Bernie is not making that case when he talks about America being more like Denmark.  It's understandable that he isn't because it would only further endanger his electability issues, but I think he owes it to the American people to explain to them that becoming a socialist society requires sacrifice above and beyond that of millionaires.

I hate to pick on Bernie Sanders of all people in a field of Presidential candidates where just about everybody else has more obvious flaws and is approaching the race with less sincere motives than he does.  Nonetheless, one has to critique the candidates they admire the same as they critique the candidates they do not, and a candidate like Bernie calling for revolutionary change in policy can't imply the revolution will be easy.  I'm still inclined to caucus for Bernie Sanders in February because I think he has by far the most important message to convey in modern American politics.  But just because I intend to caucus for him, does that necessarily mean I "hope" he becomes the Democratic nominee for President?  Hmmm....I'll have to get back to you in a few months for that one.  Much as I distrust Hillary Clinton, the stakes are pretty high for losing the next Presidential election, and I suspect Bernie Sanders would be more likely to do just that than Hillary.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Unions: The Democrats' Lifeblood Past and Present

For those whose understanding of America's political battleground is centered around the red state/blue state turf wars of the Obama era, it may come as quite a shock to know that the heart and soul of the Democratic Party throughout the 20th century, and the last two-thirds of the 20th century in particular, came from culturally conservative West Virginia and east Kentucky.  These jurisdictions become more disconnected with each passing year from the profile that typifies the modern Democratic Party, but dozens of counties in both states that went 70+% for Mitt Romney in 2012 held strong for landslide Democratic losers like George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis not that long ago.   Many of them held on even through Al Gore and John Kerry as recently as 2004, although the tide was beginning to turn by then.

The cause of the region's dramatic transformation in the last decade isn't complicated--the Democratic Party turned against coal based on its contribution to global warming and accelerated the decline of the region's primary industry--but it's vital to acknowledge why this region was so overwhelmingly aligned with the Democratic Party up to that point.  The easy answer:  unions.  At its peak, the coal industry employed hundreds of thousands of heavily unionized workers, and their participation in the union made them politically motivated, activated, and aligned with the left-leaning interests that the union and the Democratic Party were peddling.  As the decades passed, the coal mines became more automated, were forced to compete with cheaper overseas coal, and transitioned to (highly environmentally damaging) methods of coal extraction that greatly reduced the need for labor.   As a result, the coal industry that once employed hundreds of thousands in the heart of Appalachia was barely employing tens of thousands by the turn of the new millennium.  So even before the region began to identify the national Democratic Party with the "War on Coal", it's alignment with the Democratic Party was softening.  The aging cohort of retired miners most strongly affiliated with the unions and the Democratic Party were dying off while the young people who stuck around were less likely to be miners, less likely to be affiliated with the miners' union, and less likely to be persuaded by the economic arguments forwarded by the Democratic Party than their grandparents.  Just up the road in Appalachia in the hardscrabble steel mill towns of southwest Pennsylvania, a similar dynamic played out over a nearly identical time period, and can be similarly applied to hundreds of isolated communities dotting the Middle American landscape.

This background provides vital context for understanding the Democratic Party's future amidst the continued shrinkage of unions and the never-ending assault to exterminate them.  The conventional wisdom among political analysts is that demographics are on the Democrats' side to the point of ghettoizing Republicans to a sustained minority posture in national politics.  What this calculus has always misunderstood is voter engagement, and the "coalition of the ascendant" that got Obama elected twice in 2008 and 2012 also flamed out to two of history's most spectacular midterm election losses for the incumbent party in 2010 and 2014.  The degree of political engagement that unions helped initiate among its members is not being compensated for by the lethargic college students and non-union immigrant workers that helped elect Obama twice.  It's not a coincidence that one of the few endangered Democratic incumbents to survive one of these difficult midterm cycles was Senate Leader Harry Reid, who defied a flurry of polls showing him losing and pulled his 2010 Senate race out by a decisive five points.  What was Reid's secret?   Unions!  Nevada is one of the few states with ascendant ranks of union workers, and the SEIU rallied their troops with an impressive get out the vote machine.  If his Democratic colleagues in other states who got wiped out in 2010 and 2014 had unions working on their behalf--rather than crossing their fingers that college students and recent immigrants turn out in never-before-seen numbers every cycle--they might still be in the Senate today as Reid is.

Perhaps the best way of measuring the sustainability of the Democrats' union coalitions of old against its college students and immigrants coalition of today is places that have had both....meatpacking towns.  Up until the 1970s and 1980s, the meatpacking industry had one of the strongest unions in the country, and its workers were a reliable engine for Democratic votes cycle after cycle.  But a major union-busting initiative rocked the industry to its core and for the last quarter century, the industry has been largely nonunion and its workforce made up primarily by first-generation immigrants.  A quarter century after this transformation was completed and you'd still have a hard time finding a single meatpacking or food processing town in the entire country that is more Democratic in 2015 than it was in 1990.  Keep in mind that some of these cities were 90% white in 1990 but are majority minority in 2015, yet they're still less Democratic.   Perhaps another generation from now, when these majority minority towns are populated by the citizen children of the current immigrant workers, we'll finally see movement back towards the Democrats, but the exponential turnover rate of immigrant workers at meatpacking plants even makes that proposition iffy.

With all this context, it's especially terrifying to see what the Republicans have accomplished in the legislatures of battleground states across the country in the last several years, winning low turnout midterm elections promising they won't go after unions and then making union-busting their top priority once they win.  Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana were successful in imposing union-destroying right-to-work legislation in the last few years, Ohio tried it and failed (so far at least), while Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia are all poised to make the jump at the first opportunity.   And of the Governors and Legislatures who snuck through right-to-work legislation, all of them were rewarded with re-election, showing future Republican politicians that crucifying the opposition party's primary fund-raising and infrastructural engine is a consequence-free proposition.  Having seen this done at the state level so successfully, the Republican Party is patiently waiting to win the White House, be it in 2016 or 2020 or any cycle when the national tide inevitably turns their way, to ram through a national right-to-work law which would wipe out what's left of unions...and wipe out the Democratic Party's ability to compete in elections for a generation.

And yet here are the Democrats, whistling past graveyards every step of the way assuring themselves that it is THEY who have something resembling a permanent electoral advantage because of the rising tide of Hispanics and African-Americans.  I've long pontificated on my "Mississippi America" theory that whites will continue to get more Republican to compensate for rising numbers of minority, canceling out the advantage, but in the context of near-universal union busting perhaps even that theory is incomplete.  I submit that most nonwhite voters are "economy voters", aligning with the Democrats primarily because they're receptive to the Democrats' positions on jobs, the economy, and the safety net, and probably aren't all that moved by white liberals' obsession with free birth control, climate change, and gun control.   So if unions are finished off and their financial and infrastructural role in shaping the Democratic Party's message disappears, then what fills the vacuum?  If it isn't Richard Trumka behind the messaging of the Democratic Party, will its messaging be completely overtaken by Sandra Fluke, Tom Steyer, and Mike Bloomberg?  And most importantly, will working-class blacks and Hispanics, whom Democrats have mortgaged their party's future on permanent 80+% margins of victory from, be motivated to show up at the polls and support a Democratic Party that talks about climate change and gun control more than it talks about the economy?

White liberals' cocksure assertion of "demographics being destiny" doesn't hold up to any scrutiny, and is based entirely on two Presidential elections with a coalition that has only been dependable for one man, a man who will never be running for election again.  But its Republicans who are the playing the role of the sly tortoise in this race, quietly cutting the legs out from the Democrats' flimsy and unreliable would-be advantage while the Democrats nap thinking they've already won the race.  If there wasn't so much at stake, I would find some amusement at the extent the Republicans have the Democrats right where they want them.  But strong unions are imperative to any hope of middle-class preservation and equally as imperative to a political environment that isn't completely under the ownership of the financial industry.  If we lose unions, we lose not only an informed faction of the electorate motivated to activism to improve the country, but we lose any and all pushback against the bought-and-paid-for corporate agenda. 

One would think this would be easy for Democrats to understand....but they've got their head so high in the clouds regarding their inevitable continued support from the rising Hispanic population that they're not even trying to hear it.   Add the near destruction of unions to the current structural issues facing the Democrats, and it's clear that the Democratic Party's fortunes are worse today than any other time in the past century.  But I fear it won't be until the day the national right-to-work law gets signed by the next Republican President in his or her first 100 days in office that Democrats will begin to yearn for the comparative good old days of 1984 and 2004.  But I'm sure they'll still think "Hispanics will rally to save us in the next just watch!"

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Previewing Election 2016 One Year In Advance

Four years ago this fall, Barack Obama hit some of his lowest approval marks ever, having been viewed as looking weak after the original debt ceiling fight with Republicans in Congress.  He was not in a good place for re-election a little over 12 months away.  But I looked at the incredibly weak GOP field and saw Mitt Romney as the only viable contender, and he seemed weak to me for all of the reasons that ultimately played out.  I'm not known for my election year optimism but one year out from the 2012 election, despite the troubling fundamentals, I nonetheless went on record predicting Barack Obama would be re-elected.  Will I be as lucky looking forward into 2016? 

It's harder to say, although after the events of the last 10 days it would seem that the Democratic field is set.  Barring major unforeseen scandals arising from Hillary Clinton's e-mails, she's the Democratic nominee.  I like Bernie Sanders and am glad he's around, but he's not a viable Presidential nominee.  The Republican field is wide open though, and I think everybody from skeptical Democrats to the GOP establishment is now starting to seriously consider the possibility that the Republican primary electorate will go with one of the two amateur hour radicals contending for the nomination.....Donald Trump or Ben Carson.  Against Hillary Clinton, it's 90+% assured that these guys would be crushed in a general election even with Hillary's sinking favorable.  Never say never because of the aforementioned e-mail controversy could produce a smoking gun or the economy could collapse and feed right into one of Trump or Carson's narratives, but short of that kind of dramatic game changer, Hillary would not only win the 2016 Presidential landslide, but win in the biggest popular vote landslide since 1984, win back the United States Senate and possibly even the U.S. House for the Democrats, and flip a couple dozen legislative chambers to the Democrats as well. 

Notice I said that Hillary would win the 2016 Presidential election in a "popular vote" landslide, probably in the 10-12 point range.  That doesn't mean the electoral map would be a sea of blue on the evening of November 8, 2016, even if Trump or Carson was to live up to the absolute worst of my expectations as nominees.  Trump or Carson would have to murder a nun at high noon in Central Park in front of several hundred witnesses to not win the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming in a Presidential election.  And if they did murder that nun, they'd still win most of those states against Hillary or basically any Democrat.  Reagan's 49-state re-election victory in 1984 simply cannot happen in today's polarized America no matter how terrible the losing party's nominee is.

So where would Democrats see the inroads needed for the kind of blowout victory I predicted in a hypothetical Hillary vs. Trump or Carson race?  First and foremost, they would run up the score to unprecedented levels in the already blue states of the northeast and the West coast.  I could see Hillary besting Trump or Carson in the 70+% range in New York and most of New England while winning 2-1 in Washington, Oregon, and California.  I'm less certain about the Midwest, particularly with Trump because his anti-immigration and protectionist posturing would find an audience among some white working class voters who went twice for Obama.  I suspect Hillary would do about as well as Obama did in 2008 in states like Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio.  And Obama's 2008 victory in Indiana was such a fluke I might even expect Trump or Carson to prevail there.

As for "red states" that would flip to Hillary, there are few options.  Demographics and politics are changing in Alaska so it's possible Hillary could get 3 electoral votes there.  Arizona is a possibility although I'm sure Trump's anti-immigration positions would resonate with whites there every bit as much as they'd repel Hispanics, and perhaps be a wash overall.  Montana is a red state where I think hypothetical most Democratic nominees could beat Trump or Carson, but I have my doubts whether it would "Hillary country".  And demographics are changing quickly in Democrats' favor in Georgia, but given how popular Trump or Carson would be among rural whites, I still think the GOP would be favored there.  Texas is a Democratic pipe dream and the best Hillary could expect there would be to hold Trump or Carson to a single-digit margin of victory by squeezing out lopsided margins among the few Latinos who bother to vote there and picking off a few country club Republicans.

But such a Hillary blowout would be unlikely to portend a realignment or anything resembling the "permanent majority" both parties regularly fantasize about attaining based on a couple of positive trendlines.  Most of the gains that Hillary would make against Trump or Carson outside of the traditional GOP orbit would likely revert back to Republicans two years later.  And the demographic that would assuredly hold strongest for Trump or Carson compared to 2008 and 2012 would be the white working class, a demographic that compensates for its declining population by simply raising its margins of victory for Republicans every election cycle.  And should Hillary dominate in the 2016 Presidential election, the Democrats would be looking at an extremely defensive midterm cycle in 2018 where Democrats control 25 Senate seats and Republicans control only 8.  Democrats won a bunch of seats they shouldn't have in 2012 in a perfect storm and have rentals on several of them.  Even if the Dems win back the Senate in 2016, they will almost certainly lose it again in 2018 if Hillary Clinton is elected President in 2016, and a big GOP victory in 2018 would set the groundwork for Republicans to control the redistricting process again after the next census, locking their gains in place and creating an unwinnable Congressional and legislative map for Democrats once again just as they did in 2001 and 2011.  For all the talk of the Democrats and their "coalition of the ascendant", the Republicans currently dominate government beneath the Presidential level in a way neither party has done before since the Democrats in the mid-30s under FDR, and a Hillary blowout next year would not likely do anything to reverse Republicans' downballot momentum moving forward.

That's why I question the conventional wisdom that if Republicans nominate a nutjob who loses in a landslide, the base will be humbled and learn they can't do that again next time.  After all, two years after their landslide defeat in 2016, they're likely to have a landslide victory in the 2018 midterms when dozens of new anarchists are elected to Congress.  This will embolden the same GOP base that nominated Trump or Carson to nominate someone else from that ilk in 2020.  Rinse and repeat.

Now obviously I just got way ahead of myself based on the mere potential of a Trump or Carson nomination, which despite current polls is no sure thing by any stretch.  At this time in 2003 and 2007, neither John Kerry nor John McCain, respectively, seemed likely to win their party's nominations but the flavor of the month frontrunners for their parties nominations those years burned out before people started voting.  I long thought that Jeb! was the strongest establishment candidate whose warchest of campaign money could help him withstand early primary season turbulence better than most, but Jeb!s campaign seems to be in deep trouble right now and will need a major course correction at this point to be viable in the early primaries.  Absent Jeb!, Ohio Governor John Kasich would be a conceivably tough nominee but is also struggling to gain any traction among the radicalized GOP base.   Best positioned to seize the not-Trump-and-not-Carson vote now would seem to be Marco Rubio, who would probably put up the stiffest challenge to Hillary as the nominee.  Both Kasich and Rubio have vulnerabilities of their own, but given that this is a defensive cycle for Democrats and their nominee has high unfavorables that will likely elicit lower turnout among key Democratic demographics, I would give them both 50-50 odds against Hillary should either of them get the nomination.

As might be expected in a year without an incumbent, it's no real surprise that a year before the 2016 Presidential election it's harder to predict the most likely outcome than it was in 2012.  It's similar to where we stood at this point in 2003, where Democratic nomination frontrunners were Howard Dean and Wesley Clark, both of whom would likely have lost in landslides to incumbent George W. Bush, but Democrats shifted towards John Kerry at the last minute and suddenly put forward a nominee that kept things close in the 2004 general election.  Similarly, if Rubio or even Jeb! is able to wrestle away the GOP nomination from the current frontrunners, then we'll have a race on our hands this year.  What can be more easily predicted is that the nation's existing ideological stalemate and pattern of wave elections every two years is unlikely to end regardless of who wins in 2016.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The Resurrection Of Hardee's And The Demise Of Happy Chef

Growing up in the Upper Midwest in the 1980s, two food franchises that were front and center in my childhood memories were Hardee's and Happy Chef.  Throughout the 80s, the franchises were ascendant, with new stores popping up in new towns and replacing closed restaurants in communities that already had Hardee's and Happy Chef franchises.  They were on top of the world and even though I enjoyed them both, I took them for granted given how prolific they were.  By the second half of the 1990s, both franchises began to fall on hard times that lasted the better part of a decade for Hardee's and followed Happy Chef to its extinction.  I'll track the rise and fall of both franchises in the paragraphs ahead and offer some personal anecdotes on my associations with both of them and my opinions on what went wrong.

I'll start with Happy Chef to get the one with the unhappy ending out of the way.  The franchise started in 1963 in Mankato, Minnesota, with a single casual dining 24-hour restaurant in the vein of Perkins and Denny's.  In the quarter century to come, the franchise boomed to 56 restaurants in the Upper Midwest. While it might seem odd to an outsider why such a restaurant would have such visceral appeal to a young child as I was in the 1980s, anybody who grew up in the area will know exactly why Happy Chef brings back such fond memories for me.......the statues!  Larger-than-life ceramic statues of a nicely dressed chef holding a giant wooden spoon over his head dotted the landscape off of freeway exits throughout the region, and millions of children probably have their own memories of tugging on dad's shoulder and requesting he pull off the road and stop for breakfast at the restaurant with the big chef statue.  And best of all, he spoke!  With the push of a button at the statue's base, the chef would read you the specials for the day and often relayed some quirky prerecorded anecdotes to boot.   Was the food as impressive as the presentation?  Definitely not.  I remember having some good omelets and pancakes over the years at Happy Chef but also remember some greasy, overpriced drivel coming out of that Happy Chef kitchen, particularly in the later years.

And ultimately, Happy Chef's mid-to-late 80s expansion was when it fell victim to hubris.  I surmise that the Happy Chef empire up to that point was built on the statue gimmick, but the new Happy Chefs going up all over the region were going up sans the statues.  It was blasphemous, and I know I'm not the only young diner who no longer had any use for a roadside Happy Chef restaurant if there wasn't a statue accompanying it.  Making matters worse, a lot of existing Happy Chefs started taking their chef statues down, citing maintenance hassles particularly with the audio recordings.  It was pure arrogance, and not coincidentally the franchise's decline began shortly thereafter with a slow drip of closures throughout the 1990s that accelerated in the 2000s.  Around 2008 there were only seven Happy Chefs left.  A few years later they were down to three.  And as of September 2015, there's one left....the original Happy Chef in Mankato, Minnesota.....and not coincidentally the only one that kept their giant chef statue up over the years.

Just last winter when going Christmas shopping in Mankato, I stopped by Happy Chef and got a couple of photos of the statue for my own files and to amuse coworkers who also have fond memories of the old Happy Chef statues.  Good thing I got the photos when I did because earlier this summer the brother of the original owner announced he's putting the restaurant up for sale.  By year's end, the restaurant will likely be under different ownership and the final statue will likely be removed, ideally to be put in some museum.  The blame for the extinction of Happy Chef is largely being directed towards "changing consumer tastes", but I'm calling bullshit.  Happy Chef had one of the best promotional gimmicks around in their heyday but made the decision to squander that competitive advantage at the peak of their popularity. Consumer tastes didn't change so much as the youngest customers who got families in the front door in the first place no longer had any compelling reason to visit Happy Chef.  By such hubris does an empire fall.

But not every story of decline lacks a redemptive follow-up chapter.  The fast food franchise Hardee's was about as low as a franchise could go a decade ago but is in the middle stages of an extremely impressive comeback in 2015.  I didn't even realize back in the 1980s that Hardee's was a regional chain centered in the Midwest and Southern states.  I just assumed it was right in there with other top-tier national fast food chains like McDonald's and Burger King.  I always liked the food a lot better than McDonald's and, much like with Happy Chef, was taken in by their promotional gimmicks, which frequently included free stuffed animals with the purchase of a combo meal or, most memorably, the 1983 Smurf' glass sets.  But my personal association with Hardee's grew stronger in the summer of 1990 when I accompanied my dad doing vinyl repair work at car lots throughout southwest Minnesota, and we discovered that Hardee's was often times the only fast food option in most of the smaller towns in the region.  An order of nine of their Chicken Tenders with barbecue sauce was all I needed to get through most afternoons on the road.  Even as an adult, my commutes to college and my weekend road trips have included dozens of visits to the Hardee's drive-thrus and the purchase of one of their always-delicious chicken sandwiches.

There was a definite Hardee's boom in the second half of the 80s with new restaurants popping up everywhere, but the boom stopped abruptly in the first half of the 90s and was followed by a precipitous decline that may have been very close to becoming fatal.  I first began to notice the closure of some Hardee's around 1997, along with rumors of wider problems within the franchise.  By 2001, the store closures really began to ramp up and just kept coming until around 2007 when the bleeding finally began to stop, with the state of Minnesota getting hit particularly hard.  At its peak, there were more than 150 Hardee's locations in Minnesota alone, but by 2008 they were down to 24.  Somehow, the Hardee's in the south side ghetto of my hometown of Albert Lea was one of the 24 to persevere even through the worst years.  Hardee's acknowledged its problems around 2000 and changed its marketing and its menu.  I remember a wide array of clever advertising from Hardee's going back to when I was a little kid but it became edgier in the new millennium.  Ultimately though, the food itself was what made the comeback stick....

Hardee's was never thought to have had very good burgers in its 80s heyday, and having a few over the years I can see where its critics are coming from, but since I primarily feasted on their chicken or roast beef I didn't really notice.  But they made a conscious effort to serve thicker patties of higher quality beef along with some additional menu upgrades.  Contrary to my dad's clueless assertion that "they're never gonna make a comeback by raising their prices", Hardee's appears to have done just that as they are definitely resurgent again and have been since around 2010.  They were down to one restaurant in the Des Moines area but now have four.  All of the Hardee's in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, closed more than a decade ago but now there are at least two new ones.  Smaller cities in Minnesota where Hardee's had previously closed--such as Fairmont and Austin--are now reopening Hardee's stores.  And I couldn't be happier about it as it's always been one of my favorite--and most storied--fast food options.  I'm not sure we're likely to see the return of the small-town Hardee's stores I remembered as a boy that were some of the first to close, which is unfortunate, but then again their comeback options seem rather limitless at this stage with as much turf as they've already reclaimed.

Next week I'll be driving home from Duluth on Minnesota State Highway 23 after a weekend on the North Shore of Lake Superior and I already know my lunch choice will be Hardee's.  And I'll have five options to boot as Highway 23 has Hardee's in Hinckley, Mora, Milaca, Cold Spring, and Granite Falls.....assuming they haven't reopened one in another town on the highway as well!

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The Donald Trump Phenomenon: An Accumulation of 50 Years Worth of Republican Party Cynicism

Like just about everybody else who follows politics, I would not have anticipated three months ago that Donald Trump would come to dominate the political discussion for the summer, surge way ahead in the polls amongst a very crowded field, and suck all the oxygen out of the room for most other candidates.  But that was primarily because I didn't know what kind of campaign he was gonna run.  Had I known three months ago what I know now, it wouldn't have been nearly as surprising.  Here we have one of the 100 richest men in America running a full-throated populist campaign railing against everything from illegal immigration to the Chinese eating our lunch in the global economy to America's political leaders being bought and paid for by, well, by guys like him.  And the fact that he talks about these issues with the trademark Trump swagger and brash self-confidence only makes him more appealing to the demographic he's going for....a demographic that the Republican Party co-opted more than two generations ago that has now come to represent a majority in their party while the establishment was napping.

Minnesota's Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty coined a term in 2005 that seemed on-point then and has only gotten more fitting in the decade since.....that Republicans are no longer "the party of the country club but are the party of Sam's Club".  In the 1950s, predicting voting patterns in America was pretty easy.  If you were a low-income worker in Texas or a poor farmer living in a shack with a dirt floor in Alabama, you were a Democrat.  And if you were a young professional on Long Island or a business manager in southern California, you were a Republican.  To a much greater degree than today, people voted their pocketbooks.  But then came the civil rights battle and other culture wars of the 1960s that dragged on into the 1970s and flipped America's voting coalitions on their head.  Richard Nixon and the Republican Party, with Reagan after him, successfully employed a "Southern strategy" that co-opted culturally conservative southern Democrats into the GOP tent.  By 1980, the new recruits along with the old-school money interests of the Republican Party combined to form a majority and conservatism was ascendant.

The quarter century that followed saw a shakeup amongst the "country club" crowd, however, as large chunks of their ranks drifted to the left on the same cultural issues that the GOP won over the "Sam's Cub" crowd with.  It would have been unthinkable in the 1970s that 30 years later, the steel mill towns of southwest Pennsylvania would be Republican while the upscale suburban donut encircling Philadelphia would be Democrat, but that's exactly what has happened in that very local example and across the country.  Cycle after cycle, the blue-collar whites that Republicans spent the 60s, 70s, and 80s co-opting into the Republican Party orbit based on a growing litany of cultural resentments became a larger and larger share of the party's base.  In 2012, every fourth-rate contender in the weakest Republican Presidential field in decades was given a serious hearing by the party's primary electorate--halfwits like Herman Cain and Rick Santorum and nutjobs like Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich all had their time in the sun--before primary voters finally realized they were unelectable and then held their nose and voted for establishment choice Mitt Romney only after all other options were exhausted.  That cycle foreshadowed the Trump surge we're seeing four years later, only Trump has far more media savvy and staying power than those clowns ever had, which is why he is dominating the field to the degree that he has.

It would seem as though 2016 is the year that the inmates have officially taken over the asylum in the Republican Party.  It seems hard for me to believe that a businessman like Trump agrees with his own overheated rhetoric on immigration and sticking it to China in the global economy, but he recognizes that that's where the center of gravity is now in the Republican Party.  For decades, the party has relied upon the foot soldiers in trailer parks and small impoverished towns throughout the South and the heartland for enough votes to win on election day, at which point the party graybeards would proceed with their real agenda of transferring wealth from that same peasantry to the top of the income pyramid, only stirring the pot of the culture war again before elections to make sure their soldiers will deliver for them yet again.  But with the combination of changing demographics in the country and the moneyed class discovering they can get the same special protections with Democrats without the cultural intolerance, the Republicans are finding that all they have left are angry white guys in the South and the heartland whose Republican identity is entirely defined by their cultural resentments.  And on the issues that matter most to establishment types like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, these voters really don't have a vested interest.

Enter Donald Trump, who is taking positions on bread and butter issues that likely have Ronald Reagan spinning in his grave, including a higher minimum wage, protectionist tariffs, high taxes on the rich, and single-payer health care.  To your average Republican base voter earning $25,000 a year in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Cape Girardeau, Missouri, who favors Republicans based on issues like guns, abortion, immigration, and sticking it to "welfare cheats", none of Trump's left-populist economic posturing is particularly troubling.  After all, most of these guys are from families a generation or two removed from being New Deal and JFK Democrats based on the same left-populist economic posturing coming out of Trump.  They're just not "conservatives" in the Reagan tradition no matter how much historical rewriting has been done to lionize Reagan and his policy positions.  Mike Huckabee had success in 2008 running on a softer version of this platform as did Rick Santorum in 2012, but these guys never had the salesmanship or media platform that Trump now has to consolidate this white working class base.

Like everybody else, I figured early on that Trump would fade rather quickly, but that certainly hasn't happened.  I'm about 50-50 on whether it will at this point.  I think even among the flag-waving populist crowd, they may take a step back as the primary vote approaches and ask themselves if they really believe this guy is capable of winning a general election.  And chances are, his shtick will be wearing thin by then.  Some believe Trump's not even really running and is merely on a high-stakes ego trip, and will pull out of the race before the voting starts assuring everybody he "could have and would have won".  All those scenarios are plausible, and collectively perhaps more plausible than him winning the nomination.  In a way, Trump's rise has been a very useful reminder to those in elite circles in both parties and the media of the magnitude of the cultural tribal lines that already exist in this country that are poised to get much worse as the population continues to diversify.  The idea of him getting anywhere near the White House is terrifying at any number of levels, but if Trump's candidacy is nothing more than an "art project" exposing the fault lines in American political and cultural life today while simultaneously getting a well-deserved jab in at the perils of our corrupt campaign finance system, then Donald Trump will go down as the best thing that happened to American politics in 2015.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"Tenney" is Officially History

A college roommate's wedding in July 2000 led me to the iconic road trip in west-central Minnesota where I first visited Tenney, at the time Minnesota's smallest incorporated town (population 4).  A massive grain elevator attached to a half dozen huge grain bins camouflages the town from state highway 55, but a curious passerby can't resist taking the left-hand turn to see the town behind the towering agriculture structure.  Particularly back in 2000, Tenney was a spooky site to behold, the decayed, vacant remains of a once more vibrant little town that at its peak had nearly 200 residents in 1910 and still had 19 people as recently as 1980. The remnants of the town's past remained intact, with nearly a dozen long-ago abandoned homes along with an old church and creamery stood there hauntingly, complete with many years of unattended weeds flapping in the wind.  And right in the middle of this post-apocalyptic vision were two trailers where the four residents of Tenney lived.  I couldn't imagine waking up every morning and being greeted by this hellscape, yet for many years these people did.

I had an immediate visceral attachment to the general west-central Minnesota area and have returned there most of the past 15 years for additional road trips.  I read in the past few years of Tenney's ongoing problems.  The city clerk had stolen city money several years ago, even though I can't seem to find any record of that online now.  And as the costs for operating the most basic functions of city government grew prohibitive, the remaining residents voted by a 2-1 margin to dissolve the town in 2011.  Fast forward to this past weekend and I drove through Tenney again, noticing that the sign for the town was now gone completely.  Turning left past the elevator to explore, only a handful of the abandoned homes remain with only one trailer in the middle of the town still around, and that was clearly empty.  The population of Tenney has officially declined to 0. 

The town's era had passed and given how ugly it's been for so long, it's hard to feel too much sadness for it ultimately being put to sleep.  Sadder to me is the likelihood that there will be many more Tenney stories in western Minnesota in the decades to come, with dozens of dying little towns that have been in freefall for my entire life and show no signs of a reversal of fortune.  The boom and bust cycle is the nature of the human settlement pattern but it seems quite wasteful to me that dozens of perfectly functional rural communities with a good housing stock and functional city infrastructures are being left to rot as settlement consolidates on the periphery of already overcrowded metro areas, requiring the creation of new pavement, housing, and infrastructure to serve the people who vacated the small towns.  In time I believe soaring energy costs will make our current settlement trends unsustainable and force people back to smaller communities, but at least for now energy prices are plummeting which means expansionist exurban settlement will press forward.  While the low gas prices this summer are nice, I can't help but feel it will give us the false sense of security that will lead us to dig our hole even deeper with exurban sprawl that will ultimately prove unsustainable when the demand for energy inevitably exceeds supply again.  But even if my long-held theory that higher energy prices will shift settlement patterns in the generation to come, it's a safe bet that the transition will come too late to save Tenney.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Election 2000: The Most Realigning Election Of My Lifetime

I remember back to July 2000, almost exactly 15 years ago and before the era when the results of new political polls were readily available on election websites moments after their release online.  I was looking through my hometown Minnesota newspaper and seeing a story on a series of polls from every state between respective party nominees Al Gore and George Bush before their party's conventions.  Bush was out to an early lead both nationally and in the individual states, but the performances of two states really stand out to me looking back.  Back in July 2000, Bush had a 17-point lead in Oregon and Gore had a 4-point lead in Louisiana.  Now these may very well have been junk polls with terrible methodologies, but if we saw polls like this today, we would immediately discount them as laughable outliers.  But in the summer of 2000, these results seemed within the realm of the possible.  For all intents and purposes, it could be argued that 35 states were credibly part of the Election 2000 "battleground" four months before the election, all places where either Gore or Bush could have won in November.  The public was disengaged and open to persuasion in a way that had defined most prior Presidential elections in the generation that preceded it.  Any outcome seemed viable moving forward, but I doubt many could have predicted the formation of the long-term realignment with rigid geographic fault lines that have defined American political life ever since.

The fluid electorate of 2000 continued on through the conventions with wild swings from Bush to Gore that kept the race unpredictable.  The debates started approximately a month before the election and only then did we start to see battle lines forming and a steady diet of state polling that was beginning to show the formation of the divide of what we would come to know as "red states" and "blue states".  In some cases, it wasn't a huge surprise to see certain states realign as blue or red as they'd been trending that way in the previous couple of elections, but there were a few genuine surprises in the degree to which some states (and regions within states) abruptly drifted into the opposing party's coalition.  And while there always felt like there was a degree of permanence to the fault lines that emerged in 2000, there was enough ambiguity that going into Election 2004, political prognosticators (and myself) had missed the realignment that had occurred in some states deemed part of the 2004 battleground in the early stages of that cycle.  

The 2000 election wasn't the beginning and the end of the realignment obviously.  Several states were behind the curve still in 2000 and didn't change until subsequent election cycles.  However, there were signs in most of those states in the 2000 cycle that political change was right around the corner.  Below I will profile each region of the country and look at their politics through a pre-2000 lens and a post-2000 lens.

The Northeast--In 2015, everybody who analyzes politics looks at the Northeast as the most Democratic part of the country, a region where Democratic Presidential candidates are likely to shut out the opposition with New Hampshire being the only swing state (and one that's been trending left for a generation) with an outside chance of a GOP win in Pennsylvania.  But going into the 2000 election cycle, it was not clear without a reasonable doubt that the northeast was gonna be Gore country.  Maine was right there along with New Hampshire as part of the 2000 battleground until the very end of the campaign, ultimately coming within a few hundred votes of giving Bush one of their electoral votes.

And while Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware were never really considered battlegrounds in the late stages of the 2000 campaign, they had been Republican-leaning battlegrounds only two cycles earlier where Clinton prevailed over Bush-41 narrowly and had definitely not yet solidified in early 2000 as the uncontested "blue states" that they've been ever since.  Vermont was pretty widely accepted as a blue state in 2000, yet Gore only won it by 10 definitely wasn't the "bluest state in the nation" then as it is now.

The center of gravity of the Republican Party shifted more Southern and more conservative in the new millennium so it's not hard to see why the northeast used to a more moderate and secular Republican Party realigned towards Democrats but that certainly wasn't obvious in July 2000 when Bush's national margins and those state polls suggested the real possibility of Gore only reassembling the Dukakis states of New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island in the northeast.  I definitely wouldn't have predicted he'd miss a clean sweep of the region only because Nader's support likely denied him the four electoral votes of New Hampshire.  It would have been interesting to see what Gore's margins in the northeast would have been if he had not selected northeasterner Joe Lieberman as a running mate, which I think helped him in New England generally and in particular in running up the score with millions of Jewish voters in the Northeast.  The lack of Lieberman on the ticket and the politics of 9/11 were brief hiccups on the Democratic trendline in the region in 2004, but Kerry swept the region and Obama has done so with rising PVI margins in the two elections since.  Perhaps another realignment will be in the works some day to reverse the region's blue trend, but it's very hard to imagine in the foreseeable future.

The Mid-Atlantic South--Two states that were behind the curve of the 2000 realignment were Virginia and North Carolina, both of which have seen their politics change since that election.  At least in Virginia's case, however, there were signs in the 2000 election that change was afoot and the state would not be defined as conventionally "Southern" for much longer, with George W. Bush underperforming Bob Dole in the fastest-growing region of the state, the D.C. suburbs and exurbs of northern Virginia.  The state was not a battleground in 2004 beyond the very early imaginations of the Kerry campaign but the trendline of sinking GOP margins continued in NOVA and Virginia's transformation happened at lightning speed thereafter.  Any election analyst worth his or her salt could tell by the 2000 results that Virginia was poised to become a purple or blue-leaning state, but I doubt many would have predicted it would happen so fast that Virginia would match the national PVI outcome only two cycles later!

North Carolina is another story.  There was nothing one could glean from the 2000 results that suggested the state would be a battleground at all in the foreseeable future.  There may have been the faintest hint in 2004 as Bush did no better in NC than he did in 2000 while the country went three points redder in 2004, but that could be dismissed on the grounds of Kerry's running mate being the native son and possibly helping Kerry on the margins at home.  If I had been given 15 guesses (or maybe even 20!) in 2000 on which nine Bush states would flip Democratic by 2008, I'm pretty sure North Carolina would not have been one of my guesses.  The state's demographic shift has been that sudden and transformational, even though it appears that purple state coalition is far more fragile than Democrats may have liked to believe back in 2008.  Still, I said at the outset there were a handful of states that the 2000 realignment missed entirely, and North Carolina was one of them.

The Deep South--In my opening paragraph, I cited Gore's four-point lead in Louisiana four months before the 2000 election.  Crazy as that sounds now, it was not surprising at the time given that Bill Clinton won Louisiana by 12 points in 1996!  But in the final stages of the 2000 campaign, it was becoming clear that George W. Bush was winning over Southerners and compiling a pretty solid regional base.  While everybody assumed Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina would be solid Bush states, there was speculation in the summer of 2000 that Georgia would be part of the battleground, possibly more so than Florida, and early polls showed Bush leading in Georgia, but by a smaller margin than he was nationally.  The Deep South had not yet realigned as a solid block of crimson red at that point. 

Since then, the South has become only more inhospitable, and while an African American becoming the face of the national Democratic Party had something to do with that, I suspect it was inevitable anyway that conservative Southern whites would further disconnect from Democrats.  There was a hiccup in this momentum beneath the Presidential level in 2006 and 2008, however, as Democrats were winning surprise victories in deep red Southern Congressional districts at the height of "Bush fatigue", but that seems light years ago compared to where the Deep South is now and it's much harder to see it happening again anytime soon, certainly at the Presidential level.  Changing demographics in Georgia resemble what we were seeing in Virginia in 2000 and could very abruptly alter that state's identity, but it still seems a cycle or two away and is definitely the only spot on the map in the Deep South where Democrats have any hope of being competitive anytime soon.

Florida--The Sunshine State deserves a geographic category all its own.  The first sign that change was afoot in the formerly Republican stronghold of Florida came in 1996 when Bill Clinton won the state by a healthy six points.  Yet it was still rather baffling four years later when the 2000 cycle began to fully take form and Florida was showing up as a key battleground, with most polls showing Gore narrowly ahead, even as Gore was having to fight for victories in traditionally blue states like Oregon and Wisconsin.  In retrospect, it was an electoral masterstroke for Gore to select Lieberman as his running mate, allowing him to heighten enthusiasm among Jewish seniors and run up the score in the Gold Coast counties.  It almost worked, and probably would have if not for the "butterfly ballot" kerfuffle.

But Florida by no means realigned towards Democrats.  In fact, 2000 was the state's best year for Democrats proportionate to the rest of the country.  The state's PVI was the same as the country's in 2000 but, despite Obama's narrow 2008 and 2012 victories, has been a couple or more points to the right of the country in the cycles since.  The rightward trendline of seniors, particularly non-Jewish seniors, in recent cycles has been the biggest impediment to Florida moving leftward, but is countered by positive demographic trends elsewhere.  Cuban-Americans, once the GOP's reliable base in Florida, continue to trend towards Democrats while Puerto Ricans in the Orlando area have dramatically shifted that region's politics leftward.  These cross-currents have likely shaped Florida to be one of if not the biggest swing state in Presidential cycles in the foreseeable future.

Appalachia and the Southern Border States--If the northeast is the region of the country where the Republicans have seen the biggest collapse in Presidential cycles, Appalachia and the the border states have produced the biggest collapse for Democrats.  In some cases, this collapse was predictable heading into 2000 while other cases it was not.  Bill Clinton only barely held on to Kentucky and Tennessee in 1996 and it wasn't a huge surprise that either flipped red four years later.  While Gore took a lot of flack for losing his home state in 2000, his presence as his party's standard-bearer is probably the only thing that kept Bush from scoring a double-digit blowout in Tennessee similar to that of Kentucky.  Missouri is another state that showed signs of moving towards Republicans in 1996 as Clinton's margin against Dole was quite a bit weaker than that of Bush-41 four years earlier.  Still, Clinton's six-point margin in Missouri in 1996 was stronger than his margins in Kentucky or Tennessee and seemed like it should position the state to be competitive for Gore.  Indeed, it was a battleground state till the end but one that Bush won by nearly four points, the start of a realignment that has put the former bellwether state of Missouri squarely into the GOP column and a little bit further to the right of the country with each passing cycle.

The states in this region where Gore's fortunes were less predictable heading into 2000, and even 2004, are Arkansas and West Virginia.  Obviously, Arkansas being Clinton's home state was worth a lot in 1992 and 1996 as he dominated by more than 15 points both cycles and made it hard to judge where the center of gravity would be in the 2000 cycle.  Arkansas was a battleground till the end but most late polls in 2000 showed Bush opening up a lead, a lead that ultimately stuck with a five-point statewide win.  West Virginia was deep blue in 1992 and 1996 even without a home state assist from the Democratic nominee.  Gore was a uniquely bad candidate for West Virginia given his environmentalism and previous assertions about the coal industry, but it still was a bit of a surprise that the state slipped away to the degree that it had, where state polling showed a clear lead for Bush in the weeks before the election, ultimately shifting from a 17-point Clinton win in 1996 to a six-point Bush win in 2000. 

But something about the results in these two states suggested Bush's win may have been more of a fluke than a realignment.  At least early on in the 2004 cycle, both states were part of the Presidential battleground.  Apparently bad polling showed Kerry and Bush statistically tied in Arkansas the weekend before the election!  And typically savvy election prognosticator Larry Sabato's early summer map in 2004 suggested West Virginia was perhaps the biggest swing state of all, to the point of him tilting it very narrowly Kerry's direction based on apparent displeasure among coal miners towards the Bush administration over lax safety regulation at the time.  In the end, the 2000 results in these states merely represented the first phase of a more permanent and resounding realignment positioning both states as among the brightest red in the country, especially in Presidential elections.  Bush won West Virginia by double digits in 2004 and came very close to doing the same in Arkansas, and those margins have gotten much better for Republicans in the Obama era.

There are regions within Midwestern and northeastern states generally considered parts of greater Appalachia that are worth mentioning here for experiencing the same trendlines.  The counties north of the Ohio River in southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio leaned Democrat for quite some time but were especially strong for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996.  But like the areas south of the Ohio River, this area began to realign towards Republicans in 2000 as well and has continued to do so to the point that home state Senator Barack Obama twice lost a huge swath of southern Illinois counties that Clinton won twice while Obama lost most southern Indiana and Ohio counties even as he was winning both states in 2008.  The same is true in western Pennsylvania, also part of Greater Appalachia, and an area long part of any winning coalition Democrats could expect out of the Keystone State.  The first signs of weakness emerged there in 1996 as Bob Dole decisively outperformed Bush-41's numbers in southwest Pennsylvania.  The trend continued in 2000 with Gore barely hanging on in a number of counties that went 2-to-1 for Michael Dukakis 12 years earlier, and the bottom has fell out in the cycles since with every county outside of Allegheny in southwest Pennsylvania having decisively realigned to Republicans.

Going into 2004, one of my biggest miscalculations was expecting the trends in northern Appalachia, particularly Ohio and Pennsylvania, were gonna be reversed.  I remember posting on political websites in the summer of 2004 that I expected some of Kerry's primary gains in Ohio would come in the belt of Appalachian counties stretching from Steubenville to Portsmouth which had suffered staggering job losses during Bush's first term.  I was pretty shellshocked come election night when Kerry actually lost ground to Gore in this area, in some cases decisively.  I was similarly surprised that Kerry lost even more ground to Gore in working-class southwest Pennsylvania.  Bush probably had a secret weapon in this area, however, that didn't get much ink at the time but may well have positioned him for winning over hearts and minds in western Pennsylvania, and that was the 2001 steel tariffs.  They were widely panned as bad policy and a tactical failure, but I could easily imagine a bunch of embattled and culturally conservative steelworkers thinking Bush did something for them that Clinton never did.  It never helped Bush or any Republican nominee since win Pennsylvania, but only because suburban Philadelphia has shifted so Democratic that it's offset steep Republican gains in the southwest part of the state, and in 2004, it got Bush to within two points of victory in PA.

The Midwest--Democrats have experienced generally positive trendlines in the Midwest since 2000, but the trendlines have been unambiguously strong in the region typically considered the Industrial Midwest versus much more ambiguous trendlines in the Upper Midwest.  Due primarily to demographic changes and a leftward shift in Greater Chicago, Illinois has been the biggest Midwestern success story for Democrats, going from a borderline swing state in 2000 to a Democratic stronghold in Presidential elections today.  Michigan and Ohio have been realigning in a Democratic direction since 2000.  Michigan was right up there with Pennsylvania and Florida as the nation's key swing states in 2000, but Gore prevailed comfortably and the state's PVI has been shifting leftward ever since. While Michigan still seems like the kind of state conceivably vulnerable in a Republican wave year in a way that Illinois probably is not, it's not likely to be put in a category of battleground states the way it was in 2000 anytime soon.

As for Ohio, it seems crazy to think back to 2000 when nobody really even looked at it as a swing state.  It was considered a foregone conclusion that Bush would win it decisively and Gore put few resources in the state.  In the end it may have been a mistake as Bush prevailed by only four points in the state, less than what most polls showed.   As with so many other results from the 2000 election, the dynamic had changed moving forward and in 2004 Ohio was ground zero in the electoral battleground.  While Bush still won the state, the PVI shifted leftward and set the stage for two narrow Obama victories in Ohio in 2008 and 2012.  Looking at the demographics I have concerns about Ohio trending back to the GOP, but as yet there's no evidence of that at the Presidential level.  Even Indiana, the heart of the Republican Party in the Midwest for decades, is to the left of where it was in 2000 proportional to the country, to the point of Obama's surprise (and flukish) victory there in 2008.

Moving onto the trio of states that make up the Upper Midwest, Democrats have had mostly favorable electoral results, but the realignment of 2000 did not portend any discernible trendlines there.  Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin all saw dramatic movement towards Republicans in 2000, even though Gore won all three of them by the skin of his teeth.  While Nader strength in Minnesota and Wisconsin could account for some of rising Republican fortunes, it felt like there was more going on and that the region may well be realigning towards Republicans.  All three states were at the epicenter of the battleground in 2004 and the results were again ambiguous.  While Iowa flipped to a narrow Bush win after a narrow Gore win four years earlier, Kerry held on to Minnesota and Wisconsin and actually did better than Gore in all three states proportionate to the whole country.  I was surprised by Bush's strength in the Upper Midwest that cycle, expecting the dovish Upper Midwest to more soundly rebuke Bush's Iraq War adventurism, but just like the steel tariffs in Pennsylvania, I think Bush did well for himself with another move early in his administration....siding with the ethanol industry that forced coastal critics to abide by the mandate.  Doing so kicked the farm economy into unprecedented prosperity that likely won Bush votes he otherwise wouldn't have won in the rural areas of all three states.  The Obama years have been kind to Democrats in the Upper Midwest, producing decisive victories and likely catapulting Minnesota out of "battleground state" status in coming cycles.  Still, the area remains one of the more unpredictable regions on the political map.

The Plains States--Prior to 2000, the Plains States were all strongly Republican but could be broken down into three categories.  The most predictable were Nebraska and Kansas, which were and mostly still are a sea of crimson red from corner to corner.  Kansas has changed less politically than almost any other stats going back to the 80s and 90s.  Nebraska, however, while still safely Republican, is no longer up there with Idaho and Utah as among the brightest red states in the country as it was in the 80s and 90s, and with Omaha trending blue, is not likely to return to that level of redness.  The only thing worth reporting since 2000 in either state is Obama's one electoral vote out of Nebraska in 2008 which doesn't say much other than Nebraska's proportional allocation of electoral votes is not something we'd ever want to see go national.

North and South Dakota are full of prairie populists and prior to 2000 had a decent array of counties that leaned blue.  But the prairie populists moved towards Bush in 2000 and have probably realigned there for the foreseeable future.  The combination of Obama's temperamental fit for the northern Plains and dovish views on the Iraq likely contributed to the Dakotas and neighboring Montana moving leftward PVI-wise in 2008 (despite McCain still decisively winning) but the states shifted back in 2012 to numbers closer to Bush's 2000 and 2004 numbers suggesting 2008 was the outlier.

Lastly, Oklahoma and Texas were Republican in the 80s and 90s but had residual Yellow Dog Democrat strongholds that kept the numbers from getting too lopsided.  Almost entirely at once in the 2000 cycle, those conservative counties shifted to Bush.  Given that Bush was the Governor of Texas, it wasn't surprising that he swept all the West Texas cotton counties that had been strong for Clinton four years earlier, but Bush's gains in eastern Oklahoma were more impressive and indicated a comprehensive realignment that was completed in the Obama years with dozens of counties dominated by Clinton in both states having become 2-1 or better GOP strongholds.  In Texas, there are cross currents in diversifying metro areas canceling out at least some of these gains.  In Oklahoma, there are none and it has become one of the most Republican states in the country in the last two cycles as a result.

The Rocky Mountain West--Most Western states moved towards Democrats since 2000.  The bright red strongholds of Idaho and Utah have only seen modest movement towards Democrats (Utah backslid in 2012 with Mormon nominee Mitt Romney) and of course both were already among the reddest states in the country, while coal-heavy Wyoming is the only Western state that has gotten progressively more Republican in the past generation.  Montana took a considerable right turn in 2000 but has moderated since then, coming within two points of going Obama in 2008 before drifting back rightward in 2012.

On the other end of the spectrum is New Mexico, a state that very narrowly and somewhat surprisingly went for Al Gore in 2000.  Bush eked out a narrow victory four years later with his strong showing among Hispanics, but the state still drifted leftward PVI-wise and has continued to in the Obama years, almost to the point of being outside of the electoral battleground in all but the most lopsided cycles, as the growing Latino vote consolidates in the Democratic column.  Ethnic diversification has also swung Nevada quite considerably towards Democrats.  New Mexico was a swing state even 25 years ago but Nevada was at the time bright red.  Clinton got two consecutive assists from Ross Perot that helped him narrowly win the state twice, but most considered the state pretty solid for Bush in 2000.  Nevada did go Bush, but by less than four points and the trendline was clear that Nevada was drifting towards Democrats.  It took two more cycles but it happened abruptly in 2008 when Obama won the state by 13 points, winning re-election decisively four years later and putting in question whether Nevada will be part of the battleground in subsequent cycles as its demographics become less and less hospitable towards Republicans.

Most would argue that the 2000 realignment came one cycle too soon for Colorado.  In some ways that's true as the state was never part of the 2000 battleground and Bush won it decisively.  It came as a bit of a surprise four years later when polls began showing Kerry was competitive in the state, but a strong performance by Nader that likely came at Gore's expense seems to have masked some Democratic momentum in Colorado in 2000.  As with Virginia and Nevada, the realignment occurred very quickly by 2008 and moving forward Colorado looks like it will be a blue-tilting swing state.  One of the few states where the 2000 election failed to predict a realignment is Arizona.  After a decisive victory for Clinton in 1996 ended a long streak of Republican dominance in the state, Bush's modest five-point win in Arizona in 2000 suggested the state was about to follow the same trendline as Nevada and New Mexico.  But most likely as a consequence of its white senior population which has become much more Republican in the past 15 years, Arizona has backslid towards Republicans in subsequent cycles and shows no realistic signs of being competitive in Presidential elections at least for the next couple of cycles.

The West Coast, Alaska, and Hawaii--As recently as November 2000, the entire West Coast was in play at the Presidential level, as crazy as that seems now when all three states are uncontested Democratic strongholds.  In reality, California was not in play in 2000 either, but a combination of some bad polling and a dumb multimillion-dollar ad buy from Karl Rove on Bush's behalf attempting to overwhelm Gore ended disastrously for the Bush team on election night when Gore won the state by 12 points, proving just how far gone California had become for Republicans and removing it from the Presidential battleground ever since.  California may have been a pipe dream for the GOP already in 2000, but Washington and Oregon were very much swing states that cycle.  In fact most polling indicated Bush had the advantage in Oregon right up until election day.  The tightness was partially but not entirely due to Nader, who polled strongest in the Pacific Northwest but underperformed on election night.  There was also pending Clinton administration lawsuit against Microsoft back in 2000 that created some question marks about Washington state and both states saw their PVI move rightward from the 1996 cycle compared to 1992, suggesting possible movement to the Republicans.  In the end, would-be Nader voters came home, helping Gore win Washington decisively and ekeing out a Gore victory in Oregon.  And there's been no turning back since with the PVI of both states moving at a rapid leftward clip to become some of the most inhospitable territory in the country for Republicans.

Alaska and Hawaii have both had more complicated trajectories.  A huge Nader performance in Alaska in 2000 made Bush's two-party performance seem more dominating while increasing racial diversification appears to be shifting the state towards Democrats generally, albeit slowly enough to where the state's bright red hue shows no serious signs of tipping anytime soon.  Hawaii saw a surprising burst of competitiveness late in the 2004 cycle, where Bush held Kerry to a single digit win, but favorite son Obama has dominated the last two cycles to the point where it's nearly impossible to discern where the real center of political gravity is.

The 2000 election felt quite realigning at the time, certainly more so than either of the Clinton-era elections that have preceded it, but the passage of a decade and a half has helped reinforce how consequential the 2000 cycle was.  I can't think of another election in the modern era that produced the same kind of impenetrable coalitions for such a sustained period.  FDR had an impressive coalition but it began to wither away when he ran for his third term and was gone completely by 1952.  Reagan's coalition was blown up three cycles later by Bill Clinton.  With only a handful of exceptions, the results of the 2000 election have locked in place the nation's geopolitical fault line for nearly a full generation, and that fault line is only getting stronger with each passing cycle.  Sadly I think the country is worse for it, even aside from the regional polarization.  Politicians now feel the need to make a play for fewer than 10 states every cycle and elections are not really national affairs the way they were up until the 2000 cycle.  History suggests the cycle will eventually end and new fault lines will emerge, creating a red state vs. blue state dynamic we would never recognize or even imagine today, but at least for the foreseeable future I suspect the America that was defined by the election map in the year 2000 will be sticking around awhile.