Which party will win the Midwest?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

I wouldn't blame you for dismissing the Midwest. Even we Midwesterners are finding it hard to feel important - and not just because of our Garrison Keilloresque self-deprecation. Back in Michigan this week, I noticed locals talking in survival terms: "Oh, sure, St. Joseph-Benton Harbor is still there - hurting, but still there." As jobs disappear from the region, people move away and the area's economy weakens even more. If you're the last to go, turn out the lights as you leave. Good luck in Texas!

The region's economy has been struggling for decades - the Great Recession just worsened problems. Midwestern manufacturing employment has been declining since at least 1980. Michigan hasn't had a year of net job growth since the Clinton administration. No state between Minnesota and Pennsylvania has gained congressional seats since the 1960 Census.

Last week's census numbers, which showed yet more population drain from the Midwest southward, only contributed to this sense of decline.

But let's not get carried away. Sure, the census figures mean that many Southern red states will gain electoral clout at the expense of their blue (or purple) neighbors. That means extra seats in South Carolina and Texas and probably a few more Republican districts (and electoral votes).

Even though the Rust Belt lost seats, the Midwest is still fertile electoral ground. The states between Minnesota and Pennsylvania command nearly 100 electoral votes, not to mention the first contest in the presidential nominating cycle, the Iowa caucuses. And, unlike the conservative South and the liberal coasts, the Midwest is filled with swing states. President Obama carried the region in 2008, but Indiana, Ohio and Iowa went for George W. Bush in 2004. Republican presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty has been loudly touting his moderate credentials by emphasizing his success as governor of Democratic-leaning Minnesota. Despite Midwesterners' exodus southward, the region has the population and political disposition that make it imperative for both parties to court it. Their electoral math doesn't work otherwise.

Still, the increasing sense of decay means that the same tactics the parties have used to attract Midwestern votes - especially the Democrats' - may not continue to work. Who will win?

Democrats traditionally speak about promoting economic recovery in the region. But things have been so bad for so long that many Rust Belt voters expect no help. Now that economic destitution is the new normal, they often use their votes in other ways. Republicans have used hot-button social issues (abortion, same-sex marriage, guns, etc.) to distract and mobilize these voters for years.

Progressives find this infuriating. How can so many poor and middle-class Americans get motivated to fight against regulating wealthy corporations?

But there's no mystery: After years of economic struggle in the Midwest, Democrats hoping to get political traction there have to convince voters that they really can reverse this half-century tailspin. Measures to protect vulnerable industries aren't enough. Even a national economic recovery will do little to preserve Midwestern manufacturing against global outsourcing.

Democrats have spoken about retooling the region for a 21st-century economy. Solar cell plants and factories building electric car batteries are a good start. But they should be part of a bigger strategy for economic revival. This doesn't mean massive federal spending, but it does mean better planning. Policymakers should be trying to build dynamic markets with what's here.

The Midwest is resource-rich. Around 85 percent of the nation's corn and soybean crop comes from the Midwest, along with 70 percent of America's pigs and almost half of its eggs. The Great Lakes represent around 84 percent of the fresh water in North America. The region was responsible for one-third of American patents between 2001 and 2007. It's no coincidence that each year about 36 percent of scientists and engineers get their degrees in the Midwest. Speaking of education, Minnesota's high school grads outscored students from all other states on the ACT this year (for the sixth year in a row), while Chicago and Kalamazoo, Mich., are hotbeds of K-12 education reform. Oh, and don't forget the Midwest's famously prestigious public and private universities. We're ripe for a comeback.

Many of these advantages aren't permanent, and further economic decline could threaten them. The census numbers suggest that it's use-it-or-lose-it time in the Midwest.

A recent report from the Brookings Institution puts forth a comprehensive approach along these lines. It argues that political and business leaders need to rethink the region from the ground up. From natural resources to infrastructure to energy use, the Midwest needs a wholesale review - and that means more than just building solar cells.

There is a brave new Midwestern world to win. This should be the Democrats' message.

Conor Williams won The Post's 2010 America's Next Great Pundit contest. His e-mail address is punditconor@gmail.com.

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