It ranks among the most conventional pieces of the conventional wisdom -- President Bush can't win without Ohio. No Republican has ever won without Ohio. But this year Bush has an Ohio insurance policy. It is in the upper Midwest. If he wins Iowa (7) and Wisconsin (10) or Minnesota (10) -- three states where he has been running strong -- he basically recoups the lost electoral votes of Ohio (20) and can still win.
What gives? How is it possible that Bush could lose that Midwestern Republican stalwart, Ohio, and pick up other Midwestern states that have weaker Republican traditions -- indeed, in the case of Minnesota, a state that has long been synonymous with Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and unreconstructed liberalism?
What might be the unexpected breakdown in the Midwest has to do, first, with the fact that it has been a so-so four years for Ohio. The unemployment rate is 6 percent, higher than the national average of 5.4 percent. It is a state with a lot of cities and a large urban core in Cleveland, areas where Democrats do well. It has an economy that is still weighted toward the manufacturing sector, where old-style, unionized Democratic politics still thrives. So this red-state stalwart could well go blue.
In contrast, in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin the state unemployment rates are all lower than the national average. The agricultural economy, so important to Iowa in particular, has been booming. Demographically, the states are almost all white, and the national Democratic Party has seen a steep drop in its support among white voters over recent decades. They tend to be strongly religious, family-oriented areas where the work ethic is alive and well -- great building blocks for contemporary Republicanism.
In these states, there has been a hint of what has long taken place in the South -- ancestral Democrats in rural areas realizing that the national Democratic Party no longer represents their values. Two of Minnesota's Democratic congressmen have essentially perfect right-to-life voting records. Former Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber recalls the most Democratic area of his former district being the most socially conservative. This is something the mainstream media just can't get -- when Bush talks about social issues, he isn't just "rallying his base," but reaching out to conservative Democrats, i.e., swing voters. In the media's estimation, swing voters who are pro-life somehow don't count.
But these rural areas are declining in population, and it is in the extended suburbs that Republicans are strongest. Minnesota has seen an explosion of the suburbs around Minneapolis/St. Paul. The same dynamic has held, if to a lesser extent, in the Milwaukee area. The cities themselves might be more liberal than ever. Weber compares Minneapolis to San Francisco. But the surrounding suburbs are full of families who care about low taxes. The suburbanization is just part of more widespread changes, especially in Minnesota. If Ohio is still an old- economy state, Minnesota is increasingly new economy, with large medical-technology and financial sectors.
Iowa is less suburban, but has plenty of socially conservative voters, and unions aren't as strong there as they used to be. The state has always been competitive. Four out of its five congressmen are Republicans. Its two senators are split. It has a Democratic governor, but a Republican legislature.
All three states have strong hunting cultures, where the pro-gun-control stance of national Democrats is unpopular. As Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan told National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, "The line is, Wisconsin is Catholic deer hunters and Minnesota is Lutheran deer hunters." And it is very dangerous to be a pheasant in Iowa.
Bush might still win Ohio and lose these three states. It seems that, in order of likelihood of a Bush win, the states are Iowa (Bush narrowly ahead), Wisconsin (Bush tied), Minnesota (Bush narrowly behind). But this region is bristling with Republican potential, and for GOP presidential candidates, a new geographical admonition should apply: "Go upper Midwest, young man."