Independent voters have been marginalised over the past decade. Armies of partisans have marched over the political battlefield. Elections have been much more about energising the faithful than reaching out to wavering voters. The 2004 election was the electoral equivalent of the Somme—trench warfare between the blue army and the red army enlivened by the occasional daring raid.

There are growing signs that this era of American politics is coming to a close. ~The Economist

The “signs” are that Schwarzenegger is popular, Bush is not, Powell is undecided about how he will vote and Barone is speculating that this new era is beginning.  That’s really about all the evidence Lexington assembles for this claim.  Meanwhile, the people who identify as independents are supposedly “pragmatic, anti-ideological and results-oriented.”  Is there some secret international pundit regulation that requires people to use these three descriptors (or versions of them) for political independents?  I have already explained why this description is a lot of nonsense, since you find when you dig a bit deeper that they are the least “pragmatic” of all, since they seem to be allergic to everything that actually goes into legislation and political coalition-building.  Besides, these descriptions are not very useful–how many people volunteer that they are impractical ideologues who are uninterested in results?  Who wouldn’t describe himself as being “pragmatic, anti-ideological and results-oriented”?  

Pundits and journalists prefer to describe independents in this way because it allows them to make a critique of the parties and their agendas in the guise of describing a political phenomenon, which in turn feeds in to a commonly-heard journalistic lie that America is deeply divided and polarised and that what we need more of is bipartisanship.  Obama and McCain are media favourites because their candidacies have been founded to a large degree on this lie that we have had too little cooperation across party lines, and that these candidates represent a chance to “unite” us.  Ignored in all of this is that the two worst policies of the last seven years, the war in Iraq and “comprehensive immigration reform,” have been thoroughly bipartisan affairs combining the worst instincts and interests of both party establishments. 

As I was reading this article, it occurred to me that Steve Sailer’s new article on affordable family formation and the marriage and baby gaps is a very useful tool for debunking the idea that a new era is about to dawn.  Sailer’s argument, which he had advanced before in the magazine and elsewhere, is that there are demographic patterns of marriage and settlement that strongly correlate with voting preferences.  Essentially, people are voting their interests and their interests are determined to a high degree by structural factors of the cost of living and the affordability of home ownership, which have in turn affected decisions about marriage and children that again appear to align with voting preferences very frequently.  Here is one key part of the article:

The culture wars between Red and Blue States are driven in large part by these objective differences in how family-friendly they are, financially speaking. For example, according to ACCRA, a nonprofit organization that measures the cost of living so corporations can adjust the salaries of employees they relocate, the liberal San Francisco-Oakland area is twice as expensive as the conservative Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. The calculator reports, “To maintain the same standard of living, your salary of $100,000 in San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, California could decrease to $49,708 in Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, Texas.”

Not surprisingly, the San Francisco area is popular with people who don’t need a big backyard for their kids, such as homosexuals and childless couples, while North Texas attracts families from across America. San Francisco is very Democratic, while the Metroplex is quite Republican.

Why? The simplest explanation is that GOP “family values” resound more in states where people can more afford to have families. In parts of the country where “Families can be easily supported, more Persons marry, and earlier in Life.” And where it is economical to buy a house with a yard in a neighborhood with a decent public school, you will generally find more conservatives. It’s a stereotype that marriage, mortgage, and kids make people more conservative, but, like most stereotypes, it’s reasonably true. You’ll find fewer Republicans in places where family formation is expensive. Where fewer people can form families, Republican candidates making speeches about family values just sound irrelevant or irritating.

The arrow of causality points in both directions. Some family-oriented people move to more affordable states in order to marry and have children, while people uninterested in marriage and children move in the opposite direction to enjoy adult lifestyles. This population swapping just makes the electorate more divided by geography rather than tipping the national balance toward one party.

While you can imagine how increases in cost of living and housing prices nationwide and consequently worsening in the affordability of home ownership and family formation would begin shifting the electorate against the Republicans, it’s not clear that this is happening or happening so rapidly that it is going to break the electoral deadlock between the two sides in which independents are also aligning with one party or the other.  The weakening dollar and high energy prices obviously ultimately work to the detriment of long-term Republican fortunes, but may not influence this cycle as much.  To the extent that they are, in fact, “pragmatic,” independents will judge the two major candidates according to their own interests, and they will split between the two in ways not terribly different from before.  It’s possible that one or the other party could benefit from intangible qualities of its candidate, and independents seem to be particularly susceptible to candidacies based on personality and biography, but for there to be a realignment election of the sort that will break us out of the evenly-divided pattern in presidential voting we would have to be experiencing significant economic woes that directly affect these factors of cost of living and home ownership.  But if housing prices continue dropping nationwide, that could portend a return of the same evenly-divided political map of past cycles after a brief moment of Democratic resurgence. 

Obviously, one shouldn’t be too reductionist about this and assume that these patterns alone drive voting preferences, and all the political fundamentals point towards another strong Democratic year, at least in Congressional races, but these patterns offer important evidence to challenge the idea that a new political era is dawning and make clear that the partisan split, such as it is, is the result of different constituencies and their divergent interests.  Of course, both Obama and McCain understand that their respective parties represent different constituencies and their domestic policy agendas reflect that to some extent.