Beltways

Add the terms “Slump Belt” and “Diploma Belt” to the new lexicon of Beltway demographers.  “Rust Belt” and “Sun Belt” are already household terms; everyone knows that the Rust Belt refers to the decaying industrial Midwest and Sun Belt is a catch-all term for boom towns from Orlando to Phoenix to San Jose. Slump Belt is a term coined by Paul Krugman that refers to a swath that cuts across both the Rust and Sun belts.  “Heavy with manufacturing centers, [it runs] from the industrial Midwest down to the Carolinas,” Richard Florida notes in his recent must-read Atlantic cover story “Meltdown Geography.”

The Slump Belt includes towns from Motown to Upstate South Carolina, where unemployment is creeping above double digits.  I would arguably add some southwestern towns, such as Phoenix, where home values have plummeted 40% in the last year.

On the other side of the economic spectrum is the Diploma Belt, which is more of a demographic classification than a geographic one.   It’s a term coined by Ron Brownstein of National Journal and Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report and refers to the 100 most-educated counties with over 20,000 people.

In their must-read NJ article, Brownstein and Wasserman explain that “The Diploma Belt consists of counties dominated by state capitals, major universities, big cities and their suburbs, or playgrounds for the rich.”   This includes communities such as Travis County, Texas (Austin); Fairfield, Ct.; Washtenaw County, Mich. (Ann Arbor); and Teton County, Wyo. (Jackson Hole).

It was only until recently that the Diploma Belt started supporting Democrats.  George H. W. Bush won 64 of today’s 100 best-educated counties in 1988 and even took the home states of Princeton, Stanford and Yale.  But, “Bill Clinton, with his centrist ‘New Democrat’ message that fused economic moderation and cultural liberalism, significantly advanced” the Democratic brand in these communities.

You’ll have to read the article to see how Obama did in the Diploma Belt, but I’m sure you can guess that his cerebral message of post-partisanship played well in these communities fatigued by eight years of a cowboy in the White House.  The Slump Belt has murkier borders, but I’d guess that voters in this belt were also stressed by Bush economics and chose the Democrat.

If Republicans can point to success in one beltway in 2008, it’s the “Jacksonian Belt.” This term, the creation of demographer/columnist Michael Barone, refers to the swath of counties settled by the Scots-Irish stretching from southwestern Pennsylvania down the Appalachian spine, through the Tennessee River Valley, and out westward across Arkansas and into eastern Oklahoma.

Unfortunately for Republicans, the Jacksonian Belt (ironically named after the father of the Democratic Party), is stagnating at best.  More West Virginians voted in the 1964 election than they did the 2008 one.  If the GOP hopes to find some success the most prized belt of all – the Beltway – it needs to find a way to connect with voters in two belts that matter most in the recession economy: the Slump and Diploma belts.

Note: The original story listed Harris County as the home of Austin.  Harris County is the home of Houston.  Travis County is the home of Austin.