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December 26, 2006

Insomniac Blogger: Race, Crime, and the Electoral Map

by Nicholas Beaudrot of Electoral Math

The NYT's Chris Suellentrop and TNR's Noam Schieber have an article and blog post on the change in Republican posturing on crime. Suellentrop details the G.O.P.'s "Jailhouse Conversion"--his words--to the cause of prison reform in the context of the rising influence of religious groups within the party. Whether coincedental or not, this change occured alongide decline of race-baiting as a political strategy signalled by George W. Bush's hugging African-American children compassion agenda. Schieber brings up structural changes, citing Clinton's welfare reform and "tough on crime" stances that helped bring electoral parity to racially-charged issues like crime and welfare.

Both of these are certainly important factors; I would also cite the "family news" trend during the '90s, which tried to push violent crime and "can your carpet kill you?" stories off of local news in favor of more positive stories, as a factor. But changes in the electoral map also played a key role.

In the '80s and '90s, both the Presidential and Congressional electoral maps were substantially different from today. At the Presidential level, Maryland, Illinois, Michigan, and Georgia were highly competitive--all states with high-crime urban areas and significant racial tensions. California was still Republican territory (it went for Carter Ford ... you know ... the republican in '76), meaning the South was even more criticial to Democratic Presidential hopes. In the House, supermajority white districts in the South voted for Republican Presidents while re-electing incumbent Democratic Congressmen, marking them as prime targets for the NRCC. All of this meant that the Republican Party, already committed to the "Southern Strategy" during the Nixon era, could gain a lot of ground without much in the way of policy shifts simply by wedging Democrats on race-related issues.

Fast forward to today. Only Bud Cramer (D-AL), Gene Taylor (D-MS), and maybe Jim Marshall (D-GA) remain from the Democratic "White South", though perhaps Heath Shuler (D-NC) is a new member of the club. In the race for the White House, the blue-tinted swing states have migrated from the South to the Midwest: Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio (once Republican territory) and Pennsylvania. These states certainly have their socially conservative areas--check out the NARAL ratings for some of the Pennsylvania Democrats--but don't have the same history of antagonistic race relations. Complaining that your opponent possesses insufficient zeal for locking people up just doesn't get you as far in these parts of the country.

Race-baiting on crime and welfare have not disappeared entirely--after all, the '05-'06 election cycle saw Jerry Kilgore (R-VA) attack Tim Kaine on the death penalty in an election where crime had never been an issue up until Kilgore ran ads on the subject. But racially tinged campaigning has certainly subsided, thanks to the confluence of several factors in the issue and electoral landscape that all coincidentally reduced the saliance of Willie Horton ads.

Gay-baiting and Latino-baiting, on the other hand ... well, let's just say its been "two steps forward, one step back".

December 26, 2006 | Permalink

Comments

"...it went for Carter in '76"

No it didn't. California went for Ford 49.35/47.57.

Posted by: Zzedar | Dec 26, 2006 6:38:08 AM

I'd add that Michigan does have racial tension; however the combination of white Democratic voters + black voters (90-odd % Democratic) tipps the balance.

Posted by: Barry | Dec 26, 2006 9:45:50 AM

No race baiting ads didn't go away. How did you miss the Maryland governors race? Bob Erlich (the incumbent Republican) ran hours and hours of ads about scary and dangerous Baltimore City with the implicit threat that a vote for Martin O'Malley (the Democrat) was a vote for mayhem in the streets.

Of course, running against the city enraged thousands of city residents and we came out inforce to kick Bob to the curb.

Posted by: Sharon | Dec 26, 2006 12:03:15 PM

I forgot about Baltimore .. and I should have brought it up to further solidify my point about the effect of the map. I never meant to imply that race-baiting had disappeared; we still had "call me" and a couple of quasi-race-baiting flyers. And I'm sure there were local contests where race was still an issue ... probably a New Orleans City Council race or something.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Dec 26, 2006 1:04:16 PM

I think one thing lost here is the people in the middle of this debate: prisoners. Race-baiting (of a sort, around "black people are criminals", mainly) and anti-crime may be off the table from the way things were pre-Clinton, but part of the reason they came off the table is an agreement that cities needed better police protection and people needed to feel safe. Now they do, and why? Because lots of people were arrested and are now in prison.

Is there really a growing surge for prison reform? I wish there were, but I don't see it. And my main example would be the most depressing, heart killing aspect: the rape of prisoners in the system, which we are perfectly well aware of, and do little to effectively combat. It's a dark place where race, power, control, sex, homosex, crime and violence meet. Yet do we see anyone willing to bring it up, or propose better enforcement, prevention or thoughtful reform? Not really. And it's because, quietly, few of us really want to know how bad it is in prison. They're there, we're here and that's the price of admission to our safer cities. And it's the price we pay for taking crime off the table as a p;olitical issue. Who really wants to get into what's lurking under the prison rock?

Posted by: weboy | Dec 27, 2006 4:50:17 PM

with so many repukes going to prison, of course they want prison reform

Posted by: merlallen | Dec 28, 2006 6:55:38 AM

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