Big Sort

Learning a Lesson From the “Redneck Caucus”

Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker went to “central casting” in the spring of ‘06 to find the candidate who could win in Bush-red communities. Goldberg recounted a stilted encounter between the Kerrys (John and Teresa Heinz) and a Missouri hog farmer, concluding that Democrats needed candidates who “speak in language familiar to, among others, the disaffected hog farmers of Missouri.”

Like Claire McCaskill, a U.S. Senate candidate in Missouri who fit easily in rural communities.

McCaskill won in ‘06, as did two other Democratic Senate candidates in traditionally “red” states: Jim Webb in Virginia and Jon Tester in Montana. It’s a cool threesome. Webb packed heat. Tester sported a flattop. McCaskill could talk to hog farmers, and she looked good at a campaign event standing next to Willie Nelson. Webb dubbed the group the “redneck caucus,” and the myth began.

The theory was that central casting had come through. Democrats had found candidates with the style that could take the edge off Republican margins outside the cities. Just a few weeks ago, The New Yorker wrote about Barack Obama’s “Appalachian Problem,” the Chicagoan’s inability in the Democratic primary to find favor among white, rural residents of southwest Virginia. The magazine visited with Sen. Webb about what it takes to win Virginia outside the District of Columbia suburbs.

Webb is good. And it’s good for Obama to go to Bristol and Lebanon and Abingdon . But if Virginia, Missouri, and Montana are still close by Election Day, then Obama needs to consider how the Redneck Caucus really won in ‘06.

They won in the cities. Democrats in urban counties turned out, and their votes sent Webb, McCaskill, and Tester to the Senate.

It amounted to the geographic opposite of the strategy George Bush used in 2004. Ron Brownstein and Richard Rainey reported after the 2004 race that Bush won by turning out the vote in 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the United States, in exurban communities outside the suburbs. They wrote:

In states like Ohio, Minnesota and Virginia, Republican strength in these outer suburbs is offsetting Democratic gains over the last decade in more established—and often more affluent—inner-tier suburbs. As Democrats analyze a demoralizing defeat in this month’s presidential election, one key question they face is whether they can reduce the expanding Republican advantage on the new frontier between suburbs and countryside.

In 2006, in these Senate races, Democrats expanded their advantage in the cities.

You can see here that no member of the Redneck Caucus won in rural communities. They won by piling up majorities in the more populous urban areas.

The point isn’t to win in deeply Republican communities, of course. It’s to cut the margins. But Webb, McCaskill, and Tester didn’t do much better in rural parts of their state than other recent Democrats. Here’s a comparison of McCaskill in ‘06 with Jean Carnahan in 2002. Jean Carnahan was running against Republican Jim Talent to continue filling the term won by her late husband. You can see in the chart below that McCaskill bettered Carnahan in small towns and rural counties by only a fraction of a percent. The real vote margin in rural Missouri was unchanged from 2002 to 2006.

But in the cities, where most voters lived, Claire McCaskill did much better. McCaskill lost rural and exurban Missouri by 71,000 votes. She won the cities by 113,000.

Talent increased his rural vote by 9,712 votes from 2002 to ‘06. The Democrats increased their rural vote in Missouri by 9,492.

Talent increased his vote in the cities by 28,000 from 2002 to ‘06, or 4 percent. But McCaskill bettered Carnahan’s city vote by 94,000, a 13.3 percent increase.

Missouri, Virginia, and Montana all had turnout above the national average in 2006. The increased turnout came mostly from excited city voters. And the Democrats won.