The presidential campaign is being waged in just 18 states, where, in 2000, the difference between the vote for Al Gore and George W. Bush was ten percentage points or less. That’s where the swing votes live, and those are the votes that will decide this whole thing. As for the rest of the country — one candidate or another considers you a given, so get used to politicians who just drop in to pander to views that you already hold.

In the third installment of his series “The Great Divide,” Bill Bishop of the Austin American-Statesman reports there is no national campaign for the presidency (registration required).

“Bush and Kerry are campaigning in the dwindling number of counties where Democrats and Republicans mix in nearly even numbers,” writes Bishop, in his ongoing analysis of the shift to partisan politics that began sometime in the 1970s and has increased with each election.

When Jimmy Carter defeated incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976, 46 percent of all American voters lived in counties where the presidential election was decided by ten percent or less, Bishop writes. By the year 2000, only 25 percent lived in a county where there was a good chance of running into, or perhaps even being friends with, someone with political views unlike your own — and just eight states had an electorate that was as politically integrated as what at one time was the national norm. All eight of these states are battlegrounds in the current race for the White House.

“One of the ironies of democracy,” Bishop writes, “is that citizens who see both sides of an issue are less likely to vote and become politically active than those people who are angry, partisan and unsympathetic to those who think differently.” Put another way, it’s devilishly hard to mobilize the undecided few who may well actually decide who the next president is. All the more reason for the campaigns to spend time and money working on winning those folks over.

But most of the country isn’t like that. In most of the country, as Bishop sees it, the disappearance of community diversity — of class, of income, of race and of political views — has also meant the disappearance of voters who can be swayed by rhetoric, policy or debates. In such places, campaigns are increasingly preaching to the choir, a strategy based less on persuasion and more on generating a “hatred” of a political opponent, aimed more at arousing supporters and getting them to the polls than at winning over the undecided.

And that strategy just polarizes the electorate even more, as Bishop has reported previously. “It’s calcifying our politics,” says Paul Maslin, who did polling for Howard Dean’s unsuccessful candidacy. Maslin’s work has found that the intensely partisan tone of national politics now also permeates debates over legislation.

As Campaign Desk has noted before, Bishop and his editors have spotted and thoroughly documented an historic shift in the political landscape. Their work especially stands out in a year during which all-too-many campaign reporters at higher-visibility outlets are content to swallow whatever the partisan spin of the moment is — and then to call it journalism.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.