17 September 2008

patchwork nation

From the Economist's Democracy in America blog: a fascinating exercise in political mapping and analysis by the Christian Science Monitor. Called "Patchwork Nation," the interactive map divides the country into eleven so-called "communities," ranging from "Evangelical Epicenters" to "Emptying Nests" to "Monied 'Burbs," and the interface allows you to explore what parts of the country fall into these predefined categories.

While the underlying concept—the idea that whole counties can be generalized based on demographic data—falls into the old Karl Rove / Mark Penn "divide and conquer" methodology*, the map is nonetheless eyeopening. It's kind of a wake-up call that makes you realize how utterly daunting the task of a national campaign must be.

The site also represents each candidate's campaign history as a graphic compilation of which kind of constituency he/she has visited over a certain period of time. It looks as if Obama's spectrum is (just) slightly more heterogeneous than McCain's, but it's hard to make any real conclusions from this.


* A word on these old politics of "divide and conquer." I've been thinking lately about how Rove and Penn have become inexorably linked (at least in the minds of most of the lefty blogosphere), and I think that while there are certain similiraties in their strategies, it's worth pointing out some differences.

The Rove strategy relies on dividing the country on a mega-scale into two halves, and utilizing primarily social/cultural issues to mobilize the conservative base and boost turnout just enough to reach a 50% +1 majority. This is what worked so well for Bush four years ago, when Rove's ingenious under-the-radar machinations to get gay marriage referendums on the ballot in so many states arguable provided Bush's 3 million vote margin.

The approach of Mark Penn (the Clintonian Rove, and almost equally as detestable as the original) is an atomized version of the Rovian strategy. Instead of dividing the country into two, Penn amplifies difference even further and looks for what he calls "micro-trends," thereby breaking down the population into ever-smaller groups such as Soccer Moms and Joe Sixpacks. Instead of exploiting existing cultural divisions, it's about creating even more difference and polarization, even in cases where there otherwise wouldn't be any. The task then becomes how a candidate can tailor their message to somehow win the support from as many different of these sub-populations as possible in order to, as in the Rove playbook, capture the 50% + 1. Some would call this pandering; needless to say, it didn't work this year for Mrs. Clinton.

The bottom line is that the similarities between the politics of Rove and Penn outweigh the differences, which are largely scalar in nature. Political success, of course, always entails building a coalition, which necessarily involves courting different interest groups and populations. It's refreshing, however, how the Obama campaign has managed to leave the Rove/Penn politics behind: Instead of appealing to that which makes us different from each other, Obama's promise lies in his appeal to what we have in common. A little touchy-feely? Certainly. But powerful nonetheless.

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