The Democrats' scenario for picking up the White House next year looks increasingly like drawing to an inside straight.
That doesn't mean they won't be able to do it. A number of states could fill their hand. But with the continuing rightward gallop of the South, the Democrats are going to have to perform near-perfectly in the swing states of the Midwest.
Like Richard Nixon before him, George W. Bush has waged a war in a way that has polarized the American people -- infuriating Democrats while strengthening his support among conservatives. But as a recent mega-survey from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press makes clear, the American people were drifting apart -- and the South was going south for the Dems -- even before Bush used his war as a wedge.
The survey documents a widening rift between the political beliefs of Democrats and Republicans, as well as a post-Sept. 11 shift in party registration toward Republicans and independents. The gap between the political attitudes of Democrats and Republicans has risen to 17 percent, the highest level since Pew began polling in the late '80s. The gap between the number of Democrats and Republicans, meanwhile, has shrunk to naught: Democrats constitute 34 percent of the electorate, Republicans and independents 33 percent each.
The shift to the GOP has been spearheaded by white evangelical Protestants, 8 percent of whom have dropped their Democratic registration and 10 percent of whom have moved into the GOP ranks in recent years. These mobile evangelicals are the largest group within the electorate to be realigning Republican, and they are clustered disproportionately in Dixie.
Meanwhile, the Democrats have become more liberal -- in part because more conservative Democrats have been re-registering Republican. Pew shows support for governmental intervention to help the needy clearly on the rise and support for foreign military intervention in decline.
This Democratic move leftward is key to understanding the rise and repositioning of Howard Dean. A somewhat truculent centrist in his years as governor of Vermont, Dean has now embraced economic and trade policies well to the left of those he favored as governor (while losing none of his truculence).
But his stance on the war was key, and in this, he does indeed resemble George McGovern. In 1972, with the Vietnam War still raging, Democrats went for McGovern because none of the other candidates had opposed that war as early or as completely as he, and because he offered an implicit critique of their own, more passive party establishment. This year, Dean has surged into the lead for largely similar reasons -- except that his critique of his party's establishment has been explicit and forceful, which resonated deeply with Democrats appalled at the inability of their congressional delegation to duke it out with Bush.
In the primary season soon to be upon us, Dean looks strongest where Democrats look strongest -- on the coasts. The decision of the Service Employees International Union to endorse Dean, for instance, was in large part due to the prodding of the union's New York and California locals. The Midwestern locals were, with one exception, distinctly less gung-ho.
Perhaps the key question for Democrats who vote strategically is whether Dean can do well in the Midwest against Bush next November. With the South out of play, and with Florida looking like a formidable challenge (according to Pew, Republicans have gained 6 points against the Democrats there since 2000), the Democrats will have to hold the states that Al Gore won and pick up at least one northern swing state that he lost -- the biggest of which is Ohio.
In one of the most dunderheaded decisions of recent political history, the Gore campaign deemed Ohio unwinnable in early October 2000. Gore neither visited the state nor spent any money there in the campaign's closing month.
Yet he lost the state by a scant 3.5 percent, and the Democratic margin over Republicans among Ohioans has actually increased by 1 percent since that time.
Ohio has hemorrhaged manufacturing jobs during the Bush presidency. It is also on Pew's list of states with the most "traditional social values," alongside most of the states of the South. This suggests that the kind of Democrat best positioned to win Ohio would favor a trade policy that takes labor standards and worker rights seriously, and wouldn't be too closely identified with issues such as civil unions and gay marriage. Dean has changed his position on trade to one that privileges labor as much as capital, but having signed Vermont's civil union law, he's a sitting duck for what is sure to be Karl Rove's campaign of calumnies.
If the Democratic game comes down to states like Ohio -- and I think it does -- then Wesley Clark or Dick Gephardt may be better positioned than Dean to oust the president. For Democrats who despise what Bush has done to this country and its good name, that's no small thing to consider.
Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.
This column originally appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.