Delaware Democrats know what to expect at the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner: balloons, union members, and some gasbaggery from Sen. Joe Biden. But at this year's dinner on Oct. 4, Biden is trying hard to make the fund-raiser special—he has arranged for John Kerry to make a cameo appearance here as he winds down his latest tour of Pennsylvania. When Biden steps to the podium, he's forced to crush the crowd's non-existent expectations. Kerry was really gonna come, Biden promises, but he had to cancel at the last minute "so he could get on the prime-time 11 o'clock news in Des Moines." The room exhales a low, sad, "Awwwww."
Delaware is used to losing face-offs with the likes of the Iowa local news. The First State loves to swing—it's the only state to choose right in every presidential election from 1952 to 1996. But because it has only three piddling electoral votes, Delaware is the easy girl who can't get a date. Former Biden Chief of Staff Ted Kaufman remembers feeling sorry for George McGovern's running mate Sargent Shriver when he showed up here right before Election Day in 1972. "I guess he had nowhere else to go." Shortly before the 2000 primary, George W. Bush visited and rebuked John McCain, asking how he could "run for president of the United States without campaigning in the state of Delaware." Bush hasn't campaigned here since.
As national candidates keep on passing her by, Delawareans sit at home and watch as the girl next door gets wined and dined. Without a network TV station to call its own, Delaware gets bathed in Pennsylvania broadcasts from the north and Maryland stations from the south. In my hotel room just outside Delaware's largest city, Wilmington, I'm assaulted by six Bush or Kerry spots in an hour. Though the Bush campaign did make some very small ad buys in Salisbury, Md., targeted at southern Delaware voters, both parties prefer the indirect approach—buy Pennsylvania, get a little bit of Delaware on the side for free.
Since there aren't any local TV stations for candidates to lard with campaign spots, statewide elections play out like expensive races for the eighth-grade class presidency. Delaware's retail politicians lavish their constituents with the personal attention they'll never get from national candidates, doing everything short of baking personalized brownies for each registered voter. All those backslaps and handshakes at shopping malls make local pols trusted friends. Delaware voters keep punching the ticket for beloved incumbents like Biden, Democratic Sen. Tom Carper, and GOP Rep. Mike Castle until they die or want a new job.
True to its status as the nation's most-ignored bellwether, when Delaware finally voted wrong, nobody cared to find out why. After Al Gore won here by 13 points in 2000, both parties erased the state from their battleground lists. Lee Ann Walling, director of the Delaware Democrats' coordinated campaign, says the national party even suggested she spend this year's meager $5,000 outlay on sending volunteers to Pennsylvania. "I was like, 'Hell no!' " she says.
Kerry has been leading Bush by five to 10 points in the polls all year, and neither campaign has anyone on the ground here. So, are Delaware's swinging days over? Probably. The state's changing demographics and the strategic shifts of the national Republican Party have turned the state from purple to light blue. In the 1970s, northern Delaware—in particular, the Wilmington suburbs—was full of Rockefeller Republicans and the agrarian south was solidly Yellow Dog Democratic. As the Republican Party corralled the southern United States, Delaware flip-flopped too. Conservative southern Delaware turned solid Republican—the only Democratic state senators in the south these days are Zell Miller types who never bothered to switch parties.
While southern Delaware has always been North Carolina, northern Delaware has morphed into New Jersey. The state's northern county, New Castle, went for George H.W. Bush 54-46 in 1988. In 2000, it went against George W. Bush, 60-37. Republican strategist and former Delaware Secretary of State Glenn C. Kenton says the elder Bush won because of DuPont retirees in the Wilmington suburbs—they might've voted for George W. Bush too if they hadn't started dying. Former Biden aide Kaufman, though, argues that the DuPont retirees are still around, and they're just the kind of educated, country club Republicans who've abandoned Bush and the GOP over guns, choice, and the environment.
Delaware is the last front for centrist Republicans. It gave the country former Gov. Pete du Pont and the late Sen. William Roth, aka the Roth IRA guy. The state is a beacon for economic conservatives: It's extraordinarily prosperous and hardly taxes locals because rabidly pro-business legislation brings in truckloads of money from out-of-state corporations. Steve Forbes even won the Republican primary here in 1996 because, as Kenton says, "Delaware loves rich people."
Delaware loves moderates just as much as it loves the rich. Rep. Mike Castle, the president of the socially liberal Rebublican Main Street group, is incredibly popular with suburbanites, especially the moderates who can't stand Bush. Kenton says that when he asks Castle fans why they like their guy, they tick off a list: "He doesn't take crap from Bush on this, and this, and this."
While a centrist like Castle can put together a coalition to win statewide, a Southern conservative like Bush faces a daunting task. He will sweep the southern counties, but nearly two-thirds of Delaware's registered voters live up north: Gore won by a landslide in New Castle last time.
And Democratic reinforcements are on the way. Delaware grew from 666,000 to 784,000 residents from 1990 to 2000, the fastest ratein either the Northeast or the Mid-Atlantic. When you head south of Wilmington on Route 1, the scenery in lower New Castle and Kent counties—cookie-cutter housing developments next to big puddles and tree stumps—looks familiar to anyone who's ever been to the outskirts of a city. But for Delawareans, this is runaway sprawl. Fifteen years ago, Route 1 didn't exist. The addition of this limited-access tollway means it's now possible to commute to Philadelphia and Baltimore from deep in the heart of Delaware. New residents come here from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey in search of the lowest housing prices in the region—you can get a new four-bedroom spread for less than $300,000.
The fastest-growing part of the state is conservative Sussex County. The housing boom started in the cosmopolitan beachfront communities, but astronomical property values have pushed pioneering homeowners inland. Dan Short, the Republican mayor of rural Seaford, told me that there are six or seven pending housing projects, some numbering in the thousands of new homes, for his town of 7,000. The new immigrants threaten to break the area's recent Republican monopoly.
Along with long-distance commuters, retirees are also pouring across the borders. One recent Kiplinger's study ranked Delaware as the most tax-friendly place to retire in America—a much better deal, and much closer to civilization, than second-place Alaska. Retired servicemen have settled near Dover Air Force Base; former seasonal vacationers in the beach community of Rehoboth are living in their condos full-time and moving into developments for those "55 or better." If you dodge the walkers, you might hit a rainbow flag. Steve Elkins, who runs the advocacy group CAMP Rehoboth, estimates that Rehoboth is now about 25 percent gay.
Delaware has become such a popular destination that it's not Delaware anymore. There are 60 percent more registered voters here in 2004 than there were in 1992. With all the exurbanites, old people, gays, and people from New Jersey, the state's long, proud history as an irrelevant bellwether is, well, irrelevant. If you want to figure out where the First State's headed now, ask the guy from Trenton who just moved in next door.