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Dollar store index by @BloggersRUs

"Dollar store" index

by Tom Sullivan

If ever there was a wake-up call for Democrats' need to take back control of the U.S. Senate it was the Merrick Garland/Brett Kavanaugh saga. As 2019 wears on, whatever Robert Mueller brings, 2020 fever will take hold, media hype will increase, and the presidential derby will be in full swing. We treat the quadrennial presidential race like the political Super Bowl. What Garland/Kavanaugh should have taught us (and probably hasn't) is that so long as Mitch McConnell controls the Senate, the presidency is not where real power in Washington lies.

The dominance of small, red states in the Senate is built into the Constitution and not likely to change. Adding new states is a short-term solution that does not argue against the merits of individual cases. As part of the last week's voting rights package, the Democratic-controlled House voted to endorse statehood for the District of Columbia.

Howard Dean, as Democratic National Committee chair in 2006, promised, “We’re going to be in places where the Democratic Party hasn’t been in 25 years. If you don’t show up in 60 percent of the country, you don’t win, and that’s not going to happen anymore.” That effort coincided with Democrats' last wave election before 2018 and lasted for Dean's tenure, then fizzled.

Democrats last fall, however, picked up congressional seats in places they have not since then. That holds promise for Senate pickups going forward.

Lara Putnam and Gabriel Perez-Putnam have some interesting analysis at Washington Monthly on measuring Democrats' relative strength in more rural places they have not fared well. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may have its informal Waffle House Index for measuring the scope of hurricane damage. Their "Dollar Store" index teases out the shifting politics among “pure urban,” “urban-suburban,” and “pure rural” areas. Higher density of SNAP-authorized dollar stores in a congressional district tracks lower median incomes, lower life expectancies, and lower educational attainment rates.

The slow decline of unions and working-class churches in such areas matched Republican gains over time. What Putnam and Perez-Putnam find is that may be changing again. They find a measure of dynamism in the sorts of places where Dean wanted Democrats to compete again. There are lots of charts:

But it isn’t just that more Democrats ran in dollar store country. The above plot shows congressional districts where Democrats ran in both 2016 and 2018. Each dot’s color shows the party that held the district going into the midterm election. Each dot’s location shows the magnitude of the congressional vote swing. The breadth of the shift is clear. Very few districts moved towards the GOP in 2018. Those that did were almost entirely in (and remained in) Democratic hands. Rather, even in districts with many dollar stores, congressional votes totals moved somewhere between a little and a lot towards the Democratic candidate. In fact, in 2018, Democrats improved their vote share as much in high-dollar-store districts as they did in ones with the fewest stores. The party’s vote share improved most in the mid-to-high dollar store districts in between.
What's changed?
So how did Democrats make a comeback? In place after place, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, local progressives decided they could no longer wait for someone else to fix a political system they saw as broken. They stepped forward, found each other, created and used online resources, and took hands-on political action. Where Democrats’ local infrastructure had most atrophied, the new presence was most impactful.

New or re-energized progressive groups in red districts have repopulated local Democratic committees and altered the ecosystem for campaigns up and down the ballot. These groups aided candidate recruitment and fundraising, knocked on doors and made calls, and encouraged campaigns to come hold events in locales they might otherwise have skipped.

Dean wanted to turn red-state Democratic committees that had devolved into social clubs back into functioning political organizations. The governor found out that is not the DNC's core mission. New progressive groups are making it theirs.

It won't win back the Senate overnight, but it's a start.