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Wednesday, 6 November, 2002, 13:52 GMT
City versus country

The US electorate tends to be divided by religion, ethnicity, race and region.

These are much more important in explaining voting patterns than class or income, which tend to predominate in the UK and Europe.

Traditionally, Republicans have been described as WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), and the rest - Catholic, black, Jewish, and Southern - have tended to side with the Democrats.

However, one of the key changes in the last 25 years has been the shift of Southern whites towards the Republican party - a shift amply confirmed by the mid-term elections in which the Republicans captured Democratic Senate seats in Missouri and Georgia, and won open seats in North Carolina, Texas and South Carolina.

Also notable is the appeal of Mr Bush in the rural areas of the West, and mid-West where the Republicans held all their seats and also may have picked up Minnesota and South Dakota.

What is the secret of the Republican's appeal to these voters?

The value agenda

For the last two decades, the parties have sought to mobilise their core supporters by appealing not to class but to "value" issues.

The electorate is now more polarised than ever, and less volatile

The hot electoral issues in the US are abortion, gun control and the environment.

And many of these world views are linked to where you live, with city dwellers being both more ethnically diverse and more likely to hold the "liberal" views on these issues.

The rural voters, in contrast, hold more traditional views. They are strongly patriotic and less likely to question the President's right to set the foreign policy agenda.

And they generally are more likely to oppose gun control and tight environmental protection, while worrying about whether there are too many abortions and single parents.

Democratic cities

The largest cities and the biggest states are now disproportionately Democratic, while the rural areas and small states are trending Republican.

The Republicans lost six of the eight largest states in the last presidential election, capturing only Texas and Florida - but only just. However, again the Republicans ran strongly in the smaller rural states of West and South.

The Democrats had a 20% lead among urban voters in the seven largest metropolitan areas (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and Washington and Philadelphia) and a smaller 10% lead in the next 19 largest metropolitan areas.

By European standards, both the Democrats and Republicans are remarkably similar in their ideology - or lack of it.

Religion, not ideology

Instead, religion is a key element in the party coalitions, especially for the Republicans (although black Democrats are also strongly religious.)

Evangelical Christians are far more likely to vote for the Republicans than any other group.

And again, the Republicans have made some inroads among the more religious active Catholics, who have traditionally leaned Democratic.

The Democrat coalition now includes both the richest income groups and the poorest - who tend to be disproportionately black or Hispanic.

Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton drew both sides of his party together
Bill Clinton was successful because of his ability to appeal to both the urban black poor, and to the rich Democrats who were his main funders.

Al Gore, and the Congressional Democrats, failed to mobilise this base enough to win.

The Republicans are also a coalition of the Christian conservatives, who feel strongly about "value issues" like abortion, and the small business community, who are strong advocates of tax cuts and deregulation but are also more libertarian on social issues.

George W Bush himself belongs to a special subset of the business community - Texas oilmen - but he has found it necessary to reach out to the religious right through his special adviser, Karl Rove.

So far, he has delivered more for business in tax cuts than he has for the cultural conservatives by, for example, educational reform.

But if he is to continue to appeal to the rural areas, he must continue to deliver in areas of importance to strong Christians.

Shift to the sun belt

Another factor that distinguishes the American electorate is its propensity to move.

People change their home, and even move states, twice as frequently in Britain.

And broadly, this has led to strong population growth in the so-called "sun belt" states, such as Florida, Texas, and California, while the "rust belt" of old industrial states like New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois are all losing population and seats in the House of Representatives.

George W Bush
George W Bush has concentrated on delivering tax cuts
This trend also favours the Republicans, as was evident in the mid-term elections.

The Republican's heartland has been the sun belt, although they are no longer so strong in California.

But in the long-term, the strong growth of cities in the sun belt - areas like Miami, Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles - often fed by Hispanic immigrants - is countering that trend.

Although they are leaning more towards the Democrats, the effect has not so far been strong enough to counter the Republican strength among the white Protestants in these areas.

Age and gender

Age and gender also loom large in American elections.

The Democrats generally have the advantage among women, especially unmarried women, while men tend to vote Republican - a trend that has been reinforced by a looming conflict with Iraq.

But the Democrat failure to condemn the war on Iraq weakened their appeal to women, especially to the middle class "soccer moms" who were so crucial to Bill Clinton's success.

The Democrats usually have an advantage among retired voters, many of whom want higher medical benefits and are frightened of losing part of their social security (the US state pension system) if Republican plans come into effect.

Although Democrats have tried to play up these issues, this older generation is also more patriotic having fought in World War II, and were susceptible to Republican appeals to patriotism.

Boomerang effect

In the l980s and l990s, both Republicans and Democrats sought to mobilise and energise their natural supporters by appealing to them on cultural values, stirring up debates on subjects like abortion and gun control.

But the strategy has now backfired - the electorate is now more polarised than ever, and less volatile, but neither side has gained the decisive advantage they hoped for.

Instead, the issues have also threatened to widen the splits within the parties themselves, which has also further paralysed decision-making and made it harder to agree a future strategy.

Now the Republicans are hoping that an Iraq war will be a unifying force for them, while splitting their opponents.

And with Republican victories in both Houses of Congress, the Democrats now face difficult strategy choices as to how to consolidate their base, while reaching out to undecided voters who may have different values.

Key races




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