As Democrats nationwide search for answers to explain their defeat in the Nov. 2 election, they are considering a wide array of factors ranging from the impact of the so-called Religious Right to public concerns about future terrorist attacks. In this effort, however, they are overlooking one very obvious contributing factor - air-conditioning!
Geographers have been studying the impact of technological change on economic development and human migration in various places around the globe. The invention of the steel plow contributed to the settling of the Great Plains and the introduction of refrigerated shipping triggered large migrations from Europe to Argentina and Uruguay, as well as to the newly emerging banana zones from elsewhere within several Central American countries. So, while it may seem absurd to blame air-conditioning for recent Democratic failures at the polls, visualize the impact that it has had on population distribution within the United States.
Virtually unknown until the late 1940s, air-conditioning has enhanced the livability of many Sun Belt states, most notably Florida, Georgia, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and California, rendering them more comfortable for year-round human habitation, rather than just during the cooler winter months. Along with government policies on choice of location, especially for the aerospace and military-related industries, this has induced a major population shift within the country that eventually led to the Electoral College defeats of the Democratic presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004.
To understand the impact of demographic change on the electoral map, one need only compare the distribution of Electoral College votes by state for 2000 and 2004 with that for 1960. The 1960 election is the first that I can recall from my childhood and the last election prior to the 1963 Supreme Court decision banning prayer in public schools, arguably the precipitating factor leading to the eventual rise of religious fundamentalism as a political force in the United States. Without a demographic shift, using 1960 electoral votes by state, and tweaking the system only to include the three electoral votes for the District of Columbia (which didn't gain the right to vote for President until 1964), the blue states would have delivered 268 electoral votes to John Kerry. The possible addition of four votes from New Mexico or 10 votes from Iowa, once all absentee ballots were counted, would have rendered Ohio irrelevant and yielded a Kerry victory in the Electoral College. But Kerry would
not have been the Democratic nominee under such an Electoral College. President Gore would have been re-nominated for a second term in office, having won 278 electoral votes in 2000 to just 260 for George Bush.
This comparison reflects the Electoral College decline of states like New York (from 45 votes in 1960 to 31 in 2004), Pennsylvania (32 to 21), Illinois (27 to 21), Massachusetts (16 to 12), and Michigan (20 to 17). Those losses more than offset California's growth (32 to 55). Meanwhile, the red state nation saw increases in Florida (10 to 27), Texas (24 to 34), Arizona (4 to 10), Georgia (12 to 15), and Nevada (3 to 5), more than offsetting losses in Ohio (25 to 20) and Indiana (13 to 11). This shift is not likely to reverse itself in the foreseeable future, The Northeast and Upper Great Lakes regions will continue to have a declining impact on future national elections, as well as face diminished power within the U.S. Congress.
If the demographic shift within the country persists, it will continue to move the map in favor of the red state nation. Remarkably little change occurred from 2000 to 2004, despite an unpopular war in Iraq and a bad economy. Only three states switched allegiances. New Hampshire rejoined the rest of the Northeast as a blue state while Iowa and New Mexico appear likely defectors to the red state nation. Nothing else changed other than a net electoral vote gain of six electors among 2000's red states, continuing the trend that has become increasingly significant since 1960, thanks in great part to air conditioning.
James Wiley is a Fellow of the American Geographical Society and Associate Professor of Geography at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.