Anyone who has watched FOX News during an election has seen legendary political demographer Michael Barone speak extemporaneously on any U. S. congressional district at a moment's notice. The Almanac Of American Politics, the latest edition of which was published in 2012, gives us the fruit of his knowledge.
Partisans looking for the Almanac to spark arguments or carry water for their side have a lot of pages to flip through in vain. Barone has emerged as more conservative in recent years, memorably denouncing the Obama Administration's "gangster government" policies in 2009, but there's none of that red-meat stuff here. The Almanac is co-written this year for the first time by Chuck McCutcheon, a National Journal correspondent who apparently provides some kind of liberal ballast. Numerous other writers are credited in the back pages.
Individual bios of nearly 600 governors, senators, and House of Representatives members present straightforward analyses centering around that person's history on major votes and elections. It gets a bit dry, even more than reading a reference book usually does. Individual personalities are largely sidestepped in favor of their policies. I remember past Almanac volumes that kept me reading longer; perhaps Barone and his staff are playing it too safe?
Where the book sings for me is in the descriptions of the states and congressional districts. Barone and his team delight in the kind of factoids I enjoy, like how Alaska has 16% of the nation's land area and just a fourth of one percent of its population. "Within the lifespan of an octogenarian, Florida has been transformed, from a swampy, undersettled, mostly rural state of 1.5 million people, the smallest population in the South, to a mostly high-tech, mostly metropolitan giant of 18.8 million people," is how one state's entry begins.
If you love facts, you will find a lot to love in this book:
* The two longest-serving Democratic House members both hail from the same state (Michigan), while the two senior Republican House members both have the same last name (which, ironically enough, is Young).
* As a young boy, Missouri Republican House member Billy Long taught his pet to roll over when he said to him: "Would you rather be a Democrat or a dead dog?"
* There is only one self-declared atheist House member (Democrat Pete Stark of California) but several list no religious affiliation, including the governor of Hawaii and both senators from Colorado.
* New Mexico Democrat House member Martin Heinrich finished ahead of South Dakota Republican Senator John Thume in a recent "Hottest Man In Politics" poll.
* Ohio has not voted for a losing presidential candidate since 1960, and along with Florida, typically accounts for the thinnest winning margins of any "Big State."
If I have a serious bone to pick with this book, it's with its establishmentarian tone. In an opening essay, Barone notes the broad sweeps in House races for Democrats in 2008 and Republicans in 2010, offering various ideas centered around ideology and perceptions of competence. One thing he doesn't consider is that the system has become broken by entrenched political interests that spur public cynicism and impatience anything positive can be done. The system worked better when you could count on some amount of comity, but imbalances like earmarks and no term limits were always there. Now with the money running out, it's more and more like rats on a sinking ship.
That's me playing pundit, though, something Barone and company don't do here. They wanted to produce a reference book and not a treatise. This Almanac succeeds, much more to its benefit than otherwise.