Barack Obama went back last week to Iowa, the place where it all began for him nearly three years ago. But what he encountered was a reality that dumped a bucket of ice water on any toasty sense of nostalgia that might still have been lingering in his head. On the day he arrived, the Des Moines Register published a poll that put his approval rating in the state at 45 percent, a 23-point drop since January 2009 and nine points below the total he racked up in defeating John McCain there. The next morning, surrounded in the backyard of a local supporter by blooming flowers, tiki torches, and 70 restive voters, Obama was bombarded with skeptical questions about his handling of the economy, taxes, and health care. One woman told him that her 24-year-old son, “who campaigned fiercely” for the president but is now struggling to find full-time work, and his friends “are losing their hope, which was a message that you inspired them with.”
Disquieting as the backyard session may have been for Obama, however, there was another elected official in attendance whose situation is considerably more dire: the incumbent Democratic governor of Iowa, Chet Culver, who is trailing in his race for reelection by a whopping nineteen points. Culver’s predicament is particular and personal, about which more in a moment, but it is also part of a larger and more significant story. Across the industrial Midwest, Democratic governors, senators, and state legislators are facing something like a total wipeout on November 2—even as their counterparts on the coasts are, if not exactly soaring with the eagles, at least holding their own. The forces behind this pattern are as much demographic as geographic. And they augur the emergence of a new electoral map that holds both promise and peril for Obama in 2012.
It’s the peril that is on display in Iowa right now. Despite a fairly strong economy in this classic swing state, Democrats are in real danger of losing control of the statehouse, losing seats in the State Senate, and losing a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, too.
Then there is Culver, who is seen by even many of his allies in Iowa as lackadaisical and lunkheaded, and who has been far behind his opponent, former governor Terry Branstad, for most of the year. But when I talked to Culver in suburban Des Moines just after Labor Day, he predicted confidently that he would close the gap. He had gone on the air with a new TV ad in which he acknowledged “honest mistakes” in his first term and pledged to “do better”; his state’s budget was in the black; voters would ultimately realize that a return to “Bush-Branstad” policies would spell disaster. Unlike many Democrats, Culver was keen for Obama to campaign for him in Iowa. “If he can help motivate those hundred thousand new Obama voters,” Culver said, “I believe we’ll win.” A month later, though, when the president arrived, no stumping for Culver was on the schedule. The White House and the Democratic National Committee have written him off for dead.
A similar verdict could be rendered regarding most of Culver’s fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidates across the region. Currently, the party controls the governorships of Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—each of which, according to Nate Silver’s calculations for the New York Times’ newly acquired FiveThirtyEight, Democrats stand a better than 84 percent chance of losing. The Senate races in those states look little better for Democrats. Pat Toomey is pulling away from Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania. Rob Portman leads Lee Fisher by more than ten points in Ohio. Ron Johnson is ahead of Russ Feingold by nearly that much in Wisconsin. And Mark Kirk, in spite of a propensity to lie about his résumé that borders on the pathological, is a hair ahead of Alexi Giannoulias in Illinois.
But the coasts are a different story. Out in California, Barbara Boxer is starting to put some distance between herself and Carly Fiorina, and even after spending $120 million (so far!), Meg Whitman is in a statistical dead heat with Jerry Brown. Senator Patty Murray, who a few weeks ago seemed to be on the endangered-species list, is now seen as likely to survive in Washington State. Here at home, despite the scare Carl Paladino has put into Andrew Cuomo, no one seriously expects a certified lunatic to occupy the governor’s mansion come 2011—and Kirsten Gillibrand, maybe the luckiest candidate in recent New York history, will cruise to victory. Democrats are likely to hold their Senate seats in Delaware, Maryland, Vermont, and (probably) Connecticut. And they are likely to maintain or take over all the governorships in New England, except in Maine.
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.