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Evenly Spreading Partisan Votes May Be the Key to Winning

By Thomas B. Edsall and Zachary A. Goldfarb
Monday, May 8, 2006

With Democrats locked out of the White House and in the minority in Congress, it might seem that there just aren't enough Democratic voters to win elections. But political scientist Gary Jacobson says the problem is actually more complicated: The distribution of Republican voters is more politically effective across the nation.

Jacobson's research shows a little more than half of all the nation's 435 congressional districts over recent decades consistently favored Republican presidential candidates. A little less than 40 percent went for Democrats. (The remainder had a mixed pattern.) Jacobson, at the University of California at San Diego, said this is due to an "inefficient" distribution of Democratic voters, with many concentrations of 60 percent or more in urban areas and places with large numbers of minorities. Republicans, he found, are distributed more evenly, yielding more districts in which GOP voters have a slimmer but sturdy majority.

Jacobson's study highlighted another problem for Democrats as they labor to shed minority status: the decline in split-ticket voting.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, about 40 percent of all House Democrats represented districts that voted for GOP presidential candidates. Many were in the South, where local Democratic politicians often disowned the "national" Democratic Party and many endorsed the GOP presidential nominee.

In the 1990s, the number of districts voting Republican for president but for a Democratic House candidate fell to a little more than 20 percent, and in this decade, down to 13 percent. "There has been a big increase in party-line voting at all levels," Jacobson said. Given the trends toward partisan polarization, Democrats face the uphill task of winning in states and districts where straight-ticket Republican voting has become increasingly common. Democratic strategists think that what polls show -- President Bush's unpopularity, combined with widespread unease over the Iraq war -- will be enough to overcome these trends this fall. But, according to Jacobson's analysis, the Republican tilt of many districts will make it hard for Democrats to hold on to whatever gains they make this year.

Cornhusker Fans Could Decide Nebraska Primary

Nebraskans love Cornhusker football, it goes without saying. But control of the governor's office may hinge on just how much they love it.

Republicans will vote in a primary tomorrow in which Rep. Tom Osborne, who helped lead the Huskers to many championship games over 36 years, is hoping for the GOP nomination. It had long been assumed by political analysts that Osborne would parlay gridiron glory into the governorship, but President Bush threw a curve in these expectations last year when he nominated then-Gov. Mike Johanns as agriculture secretary. Republican Dave Heineman became governor and decided to try to keep his job.

"If we have a governor who's doing a good job, why should we change?" Heineman campaign manager Carlos Castillo asked.

A recent rush of independents and Democrats registering as Republicans might augur well, however, for Osborne, who is seen as more moderate. He has picked up three major state newspaper endorsements because, campaign manager Vicki Powell said, "He has legislative experience. He has actually run a company."

Nebraska primary voters will also settle tomorrow on the Republican nominee to try to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson. Recent polls suggest that Pete Ricketts, a former top executive at online broker Ameritrade, is leading over former state attorney general Don Stenberg and former state GOP chairman David Kramer.

Nelson, a conservative Democrat, has generally been popular in Nebraska, but he is running in a state that Bush won in 2004 with 66 percent of the vote.

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