McCain and Palin Have an Opportunity in the Frozen North

Polls show a changing landscape that is bad news for Obama.

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During financial disaster week, Barack Obama took the lead over John McCain in national polls, by 2.3 percent in the Real Clear Politics average. But the reshuffling of the political deck seems to have opened up more states for McCain and have closed off some states for Obama, specifically, in the northern tier of the country: call it the Frozen North. Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Washington seem to be in play now. Preconvention polls showed Obama well ahead in each; postconvention polls show him leading by only a few points. That's 31 electoral votes on the table. And North Dakota, Montana, and Alaska seem to be out of play. Obama was competitive there in pre-convention polls, though there weren't many of them; he's well behind in postconvention polls. That's nine electoral votes off the table. Net advantage to McCain: 40 electoral votes. The Obama campaign has evidently reached the same conclusion: It is closing its North Dakota offices and the sending staffers to Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The obvious explanation, and not just for Alaska, is Sarah Palin. My working hypothesis is that Palin has boosted McCain in rural/small town areas of the Frozen North up toward the levels of support that George W. Bush won there. Remember that Bush, while unusually weak for a Republican in affluent suburbs in major metropolitan areas, was unusually strong for a Republican in rural/small town areas. In Montana, Bush 43 in 2000 won 58 percent-38 percent; Bush 41 in 1988 won 52 percent-46 percent. In North Dakota Bush 43 in 2000 won, 61-33; Bush 41 in 1988 won, 56-43. In the Minnesota seventh congressional district, roughly the northwest part of the state, Bush 43 in 2000 won, 54 -39; Bush 41 in 1988 won, 52-48. (I am using the figures for the district as defined in the 1992 to 2000 elections.) By way of contrast, Bush 43 in 2000 won the affluent suburban Minneapolis third congressional district, 50-45; Bush 41 in 1988 won, 54 -46. In other words, the Bush 43 percentage margin exceeded the Bush 41 percentage margin by 24 percent in Montana, 15 percent in North Dakota, and 11 percent in Minnesota 7, but was 3 percent smaller in Minnesota.

The Frozen North, as I've defined it, is also largely coincident with Germano-Scandinavian America, the northwestern quadrant of the nation heavily settled by German and Scandinavian immigrants in the second half of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, about which I've written before. Germano-Scandinavian America has long been politically distinctive. One-hundred years ago, it was the part of the country that most favored bureaucratic regulation and socialist experiments. It spawned third parties that supported such policies: the Progressives in Wisconsin, the Farmer-Labor party in Minnesota, the Nonpartisan League in North Dakota. It was also dovish, even pacifist. Half the votes cast against American entry into World War I in 1917 were cast by members of Congress from this region (as well as the only vote against entry into World War II in 1941, by Jeanette Rankin of Montana). It was isolationist in the years before World War II; Charles Lindbergh was following in the footsteps of his father, an isolationist congressman from Minnesota in the years before World War I and a Farmer-Labor candidate in the years after. Germano-Scandinavian America was also dovish in the Vietnam period. George McGovern won 46 percent of the vote in Minnesota and South Dakota and 44 percent in Wisconsin; the only places he ran better were Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia.

Why did George W. Bush, despite his Texas twang, show unusual strength in the Frozen North in 2000? One reason was that he was not an especially hawkish candidate then; he was calling for a "humble" foreign policy. The Iraq warrior Bush of 2004 won by smaller percentage margins than in 2000 in Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota 7 (within the boundaries established for the 2002 election). Another reason was the unpopularity in rural/small town areas of Clinton-Gore environmental policies (wetlands regulations put lots of land with seasonal puddles in North Dakota and Minnesota off limits). A third reason, I think, was that the same cultural liberalism that made national Democrats attractive in the Montgomery counties of Pennsylvania and Maryland made them unattractive in the heavily rural/small town Frozen North.

Before the two conventions this year, John McCain was running far behind George W. Bush's levels in the Frozen North—in vivid contrast to rural/small town areas in Appalachia, where Barack Obama had been shellacked by Hillary Clinton in the primaries and where he was (and still is) running far behind the last three Democratic nominees in general election polls. The key factor is not, I think, race. The key factor is foreign policy: Appalachia is Jacksonian, extremely hawkish, intent on winning victory in any conflict it enters; Germano-Scandinavian America is dovish, sometimes even pacifist, intent on ending any military conflict on any terms possible. Obama's emphasis on his early opposition to the war appealed to Germano-Scandinavian America even as it repelled Appalachian America.

The sudden selection of Palin, combined with the lengthy diminishing salience of the Iraq issue, seems to have changed the political balance in the Frozen North. Palin's rural/small town background, her hockey mom status, even her Fargo-like accent make her a figure rural/small town voters in the Frozen North can identify with. McCain's selection of her made him seem more their kind of American.

The numbers seem pretty clear on this. Let's compare McCain's margin, plus or minus, in July and August preconvention and postconvention polls in these states (counting a poll taken in Alaska just after Palin's selection as a postconvention poll).

  Preconvention Postconvention
Wisconsin -8 -2
Minnesota -8 -1
North Dakota 0 +13
Montana -2 +11
Washington -11 -4
Alaska +5 +22

Regional breakouts provided by SurveyUSA tend to support my hypothesis on rural/small town response in these states. In the North region of Minnesota, McCain trailed Obama, 50-42, in an August poll and leads him, 55-41, in a September poll. In the other regions there was little change, except for an uptick for Obama in the Twin Cities. In the East region of Washington (the part of the state where it snows), McCain led Obama, 53 -40, in an August poll, and increased that lead to 62 -31 in a September poll. In the other regions, there was little change.

Finally, there's a tantalizing poll in another state that could be called part of the Frozen North: Maine. Scott Rasmussen has Obama up by only 4 percent, compared with 14 percent and 8 percent in his August and July polls there. But Research 2000, polling in September has Obama leading by 14 percent, exactly the same number as the average of seven preconvention polls from April through August.

Of course, it's possible that Obama could put Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Washington out of play again, or that McCain will remain narrowly behind in each, as he appears to be now. But for the moment, at least, this apparent change in the playing field gives him opportunities he didn't appear to have before the conventions, and before his selection of Sarah Palin.