Last week at the Values Voter summit in Washington DC, former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum threw out a startling idea.
“We will never have the elite, smart people on our side,” Santorum declared. He didn’t really mean, of course, that conservative voters are dumb, or simple-minded.
He meant that liberals — and “media elites” — are made up of eggheads and bossy parkers. You know, the kind of people who use phrases like “bossy parker.”
But Santorum’s analysis does get at a growing conundrum in the conservative movement.
As American society grows more educated (slowly), and more urban (rapidly), the GOP is finding it difficult to connect not just with ivory tower intellectuals, or minorities, but with people who live and work in our nation’s most productive communities.
The lion’s share of all productivity in the US — about two-thirds — happens in a relatively small group of about fifteen powerhouse states, with California at the top of the list and Maryland at the bottom.
I include these fifteen because all produce at least 2% of US GDP, and most are also home to important technology, government, media or cultural clusters.
Using Europe as an analogy, these are the Germanies and the Frances. The other thirty-five states (sorry, guys) are the Portugals and the Greeces, in terms of wealth production, exports, innovation, and industrial output.
And of those 15 dynamo states, nine are now reliably Democratic, producing more than 42% of everything that Americans make.
Meanwhile, only two of the heavy-lifter states — Texas and Georgia — are dependably Republican, producing just under 11% of US GDP.
What’s interesting here is that only a few presidential cycles ago, this picture looked very different. Conservatives could more or less rely on Virginia and North Carolina. Ohio also leaned toward the GOP.
And even Florida had an arguably Republican tilt, voting Democratic in presidential elections only three times since 1968.
With those states in their column, “conservative GDP” used to look far more robust, around 25% of national GDP
But now, those states are all true-purple battlegrounds. More troubling yet for Republicans, they are drifting toward the Democratic column in large part because their most productive urban and suburban communities are — you guessed it — increasingly Democratic.
Now this one statistic alone is simplistic, to be sure, and only gives part of the picture. A recent NYTimes/CBS poll found that Mitt Romney is actually leading by a sizable margin with affluent Americans.
The poll found that Mr. Obama holds an advantage of 21 percentage points over Mr. Romney among voters whose household income is under $50,000. Mr. Romney has an edge in higher income groups, including leading Mr. Obama by 16 percentage points among voters whose household income is more than $100,000.
So Republicans are, obviously, still attracting a lot of successful, productive and — dare I say it — really smart voters. But one of the things that we’ve learned in recent years is that prosperity and growth appear to be happening more and more often in clusters.
Millionaires matter, but so do big collections of well-trained, motivated rank-and-file workers. And increasingly, people who gather in those kinds of places tend to vote for people with policies more like Barack Obama’s than Mitt Romney’s.
What does this all mean in policy terms, and in the framing of American elections? Maybe a lot.
Some moderate Republicans have suggested that the GOP will have to bend its platform in the future to appeal more to urbanites and to minorities.
But maybe a more palatable approach for conservatives would be to set a goal of winning more campaigns in the nation’s most affluent, productive communities.
Saying, “Let’s appeal to Hispanics” may sound like pandering.
But saying, “Let’s rally around those ideas that appeal to smart voters, regardless of race, who produce most of the goods and services in America” — that sounds like a bedrock Republican principle.