So what’s going on here? Economics is certainly part of the story. In the Rust Belt, the recession has been longer and more brutal than on the coasts; the unemployment rates in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana (where Republicans are also poised to make gains at the state and congressional levels, as well as picking up the Senate seat being vacated by Evan Bayh) are all among the top ten in the country. Yet the economies in Wisconsin and Iowa are decent, and Democrats are still suffering—and the economy in Florida is horrible, but Democrat Alex Sink is running neck and neck with Republican Rick Scott.
A better explanation has to do with the interplay of demography and geography. In older and whiter places in the country, Republicans are ascendant, but in younger, more racially diverse and immigrant-heavy parts of the land, Democrats are still very much in the game. Indeed, the New Democrat Network’s Simon Rosenberg breaks the country down into five electoral regions: the Northeast and the Pacific Coast, both solidly Democratic; the South and industrial Midwest, the former solidly Republican and latter trending toward the GOP; and the Latin Belt, from Florida to Texas and the interior Southwest, all of which is up for grabs, but perhaps veering slightly Democratic.
If Rosenberg is right and current trends hold, there is good news here for Obama, but also much to freak him out. The positive side is that the country is inexorably changing in a way that favors him and his party, becoming browner and imbued with a constant influx of new voters that the president can potentially tap. Yet the negative implications are equally evident. In 2008, Obama transformed the electoral map by taking reliably red states such as Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, and North Carolina and turning them blue. But if not for his dominance of the Midwest, those victories would have been for naught. There is no road to a second term for him that does not run through the Rust Belt. And on November 3, no matter how Democrats fare on the coasts, that pathway is all but certain to become pocked with potholes.