All politics is local
Back in the 1980s, the Democratic Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, said that “all politics is local.” This was in reference to the fact that despite some regions electing a certain party for national office (in recent history, the southern United States backing Republicans for President), candidates of a separate party could still win at lower levels. This has been especially true in the south, where Republicans may dominate the presidency, and often state-wide Senate races; but still have Democrats representing them in the state legislature, and the US House of Representatives. For decades, southern Democrats where able to get re-elected to the US House of Representatives, even though their constituents where voting Republican for Senate, and Republican for President. This was because these congressmen where able to build personal relationships with their constituents, voted against the national Democratic party on controversial bills, and were able to maintain a sense of independence and personal appeal.
This trend began to fall in 1994, when many southern seats fell to Republicans. That election marked the beginning of a greater level of nationalizing congressional and state legislative races. The arguments from the Republicans were that southern Democrats were still Democrats; tied to the national party. This process of nationalization took its greatest toll in 2010, when congressional Democrats not only got lost many southern seats, but also lost state legislative control in states they had controlled for decades. Those Democrats had been successfully tied to the national Democratic Party and President Barack Obama, who over the last two years had pushed a liberal agenda that was not popular in the south. Even Democrats who voted against many of the pieces of legislation were defeated, and other congressman who had voted for certain bills, but still had a strong history in the area, where defeated as well.
The case of Allen Boyd
As a current student in Tallahassee, Florida, I live in the state’s 2nd congressional district. Since the late 90s, this district had been Represented by Allen Boyd. Boyd was a conservative Democrat who represented a conservative district. The district covers a good chunk of the north Florida panhandle, a region that is very much southern in nature. Old saying goes, in Florida you go north and end up in the south. Indeed while south Florida is a growing metropolis, North Florida still feels very much like Dixie territory.
The region has backed Republicans for President by heavy margins in both 2004 and 2008, see the images below for context (click the image to enlarge it).
The specific area that covers the 2nd district gave George W Bush and John McCain 54% of the vote both times. The only nationally blue areas in this region are the dark-blue Gadsden County, which is the states only majority-black county. Leon county, home of the state’s capital, Tallahassee, is also a reliably blue county thanks to a strong African-American community, liberal middle class communities, state employees, and the FSU, TCC, and FAMU college campuses. Jefferson county, to the east, also provides reliable Democratic support thanks to its strong African-American community as well.
While Leon county is by far the largest in population, and many of those dark red counties are very small in pop, it’s still not enough to make the area Democratic favored. The rural red counties heavily favor national Republicans. So how was Boyd getting elected? This region looks like it’s just a sea of red.
Here is why… lets take a look at the counties based on registration.
Bet you didn’t see that coming did you? Now it’s suddenly a sea of blue! And heavy blue at that. Some of those red counties are over 60% registered Democratic. That is how Boyd won all these years. Many of the voters of those rural counties are Democratic due to the southern tradition of being Democratic (a dynamic that took root following the civil war). While they may vote Republican in many races, especially President, they still identify with an old-school southern democrat ideal. If a candidate fits that model, they have no problem pulling the D switch.
Lets take a look at some of Boyd’s recent races. How well did he buck the Presidential trend toward Republicans?
In the same year Bush took down Kerry in this region, we see Boyd win every county except the small sliver Okaloosa county to the west, and tie in Bay county. Btw before I continue, for anyone wondering why the district looks weird and wondering why a sliver of a different district seems to cut through Jefferson county and part of Leon, its just a thing called Gerrymandering. The sliver to the northeast cuts out African-Americans in Jefferson (cutting into majority-black city of Monticello) and eats into some Democratic precincts in Leon County. It’s basically done to make the district harder for a Democrat to win. Thank the Republican legislature for that.
Anyway, we can see Boyd did very well, he had strong showings in just about every county, winning all but 2. He ranked up big wins in Leon and Gadsden, which any Democrat has to do, but got over 60% in many of these rural counties that voted for Bush and McCain. Boyd clearly showed politics was local in his race. Despite a move against national Democrats, the voters of the 2nd district clearly liked Boyd, regarded him as an independent, and supported his re-election.
Boyd was popular enough that in 2006, he didn’t even have an opponent, and then when 2008 came around, the same year Obama also lost the 2nd district (despite winning the entire state), Boyd again was easily re-elected.
Boyd actually got 1% more than last time, and while he lost Bay county and Walton to the west, he got higher percentages in the south and eastern rural counties. His opponents where never likely to win in these races and got little help from the RNC or NRCC, but that doesn’t make these wins any less impressive. Boyd clearly resonated with these voters. His conservative positions may have ticked off strong liberals like me, but his policies where the only way a Democrat could win this region. While voters of those rural counties cast ballots for McCain in the Presidential race, they where content with keeping good ol southern Boyd in congress.
Things fall apart.
A lot can be said about what happened over the next two years, leading into the 2010 midterms. The economy had tanked heavily in the summer/fall of 2008, and over the next two years, the job market remained stagnant at best. On top of this, Obama and his commanding Democratic majorities in the House and Senate pushed a liberal agenda not seen since the great society. First, it was the stimulus package, designed to invest money in infrastructure, tax cuts, and state aid to help crushing the fall from the growing recession, which Boyd voted against at first but for after conference. This was followed by a House energy bill that included strong investment in renewable energy mandates and a cap-and-trade system, which Boyd voted for. When the healthcare debate exploded, Boyd voted against the House’s version, which included a government-run option, but did vote for the final compromise in March of 2010, which had no government option but was still a far-reaching bill.
None of those votes where popular in the 2nd district, but Boyd cast them anyway. In other years, he may have been able to get away with it (we can never be sure). However, with the economy continuing to be stagnant, many voters developed very strong anti-washington and anti-democrat attitudes, Boyd was clearly in trouble. On top of this, with Democrats in power, the well-known enthusiasm gap arose, where democratic voters where complacent and less likely to vote, while Republicans where clamoring to get some of their people back in power. This spelled trouble for Boyd from the beginning, and it was clear he would be a target. It didn’t help that Boyd had a primary challenge from democratic state Senator Al Lawson. Lawson, who was black, would benefit from the districts African-American community, which was going to make up a decent percentage of the primary voters since African Americans often register Democratic in margins up to 80 or 90%. This challenge may have caused Boyd to move to the left on some issues. It the short term, it was a good thing he did.
Boyd narrowly survived his primary challenge. Only winning by 2 point.
Boyd was able to hold on thanks to the rural counties to the south, west, and east. He lost counties with significant African-American communities (even counties like Calhoun, which where only 15% black overall, the percentages would be higher in a primary where only Democrats can vote) and also likely suffered due to anti-incumbent attitudes (several congressman lost primaries that year). He tied with Lawson in Leon, losing it by just a few hundred votes. It is likely the only reason Boyd won Jefferson county was because a chunk of the African-american vote resides in the neighboring 4th district. In fact, if Jefferson was intact, Boyd may well have lost.
Boyd may have won the primary, but he had to go left to do so. Now he was heading into the general with a target on his back. In past years, he may have been able to explain his votes, and rely on his history with the district to get re-elected (politics is local). However, with a sluggish economy, the continued nationalization of these races as a referendum on the Democratic party, and the unpopularity of the national Democrats and Obama in that region; Boyd was tied to his party, and his independence was no longer valid. Boyd was now a generic Democrat, and an incumbent, that cost him dearly.
Boyd was utterly decimated in 2010, he only got 41% of the vote. Look back to the Presidential races (keep in mind the legends are slightly different), but you can see a clear pattern. Now Boyd only won the three Presidential-blue counties, and lost many of the other counties heavily. He outperformed Kerry/Obama in Wakulla, Liberty, and Franklin counties to the southeast of Leon, but otherwise his numbers where just as bad as Democrats for President. Boyd clearly became a standard Democrat in the eyes of the voters, and it cost him his seat.
To get an even greater appreciation of the shift, lets look at the percentage difference between 2008 and 2010. I took the 2008 percentages for Boyd, and subtracted the 2010 percentages, the bigger the gap, the larger the drop-off was.
Boyd lost the least ground in the very west, where he never did great to begin with, but his falloff in Liberty, Calhoun, Gulf, Lafayette, and Dixie counties was over 35%!!! He lost double digits in just about all of the district, but the fact he lost more than 25 points in more than half the counties demonstrates how big the fall was.
Lets take a fast look at Leon County, the largest county in the district. First is Boyd’s 2008 performance, followed by his 2010 performance
In Leon, the center of the county is the Democratic Tallahassee, while the outer precincts are more rural areas. With Leon, you can see the falloff of Boyd in the rural precincts of Leon. Since most counties of the 2nd are rural, just looking at Leon’s results alone show Boyd had a major problem in 2010. A presidential map of Leon county looks pretty similar to the 2010 map.
Pretty similar. In even in Leon County, Boyd became a national Democrat. That was enough to still win the county itself, but only cause of the Democratic Tallahassee. The rural precincts of Leon, and rural counties of the 2nd district, saw Boyd as tied to Obama and the national Democratic Party, and thus did not give him their votes. That ended Boyd’s congressional career.
From local favorite to Generic D
Boyd’s collapse was rapid, but it was not the only won in the nation. Many seasoned Democrats lost their seats, several in the south. Boyd faced the same fate as Ike Skelton, Bob Etheridge, Gene Taylor, John Spratt, Chet Edwards, Rich Boucher, and other southern Democrats who held seats for years in national Republican territory but finally got tied with their national party. Boyd’s percentage shift from independent to generic D is almost perfect. His 2010 numbers where not far off from Presidential numbers (slightly altered because of two indi’s in the 2010 race). Overall, the fall of Boyd and his fellow southern Democrats begs the question if we have finally reached the end of “all politics is local.”