U.S. Electoral Geography: An Urban/Rural Divide?

Oct 26, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in November 2012]


As noted in a GeoCurrents post, most states remain more “purple” than “red” or “blue”, whereas on the county level the situation is quite different, with differentiation into Democratic and Republican voting localities becoming ever more pronounced. It should also be noted that many of the counties that went overwhelmingly for one candidate or another are demographically homogeneous. For example, Holmes County in Mississippi, which went for Obama by 83.9%, is mostly African-American, with only 20 percent of its population classified as White. Similarly, most of the counties in southern Texas that gave their votes to Obama are heavily Hispanic and over 62% Spanish-speaking, as can be seen from the MLA map reproduced on the left. In contrast, heavily Mormon counties in Utah voted solidly for Romney. The only exception to this correlation between uniformity of vote and demographic Nevadahomogeneity are counties where major cities and metro areas are located. Even though such localities are highly heterogeneous in their populations, they voted consistently for Obama, regardless of whether they are located in a predominantly “red” or “blue” state. For example, the lonesome blue square in the northeastern part of Texas is Dallas County, home to Dallas, the third-largest city in Texas and the eighth-largest city in the country. In Nevada, only two counties gave their votes to Obama: Clark County in the south, whose seat is Las Vegas, and Washoe County in the northwest, where Reno is located.



The overwhelmingly Democratic proclivity of cities is even clearer from the map produced by Chris Howard, an author and illustrator from New Hampshire, who overlaid the election results map on top of census population data for every county in the continental U.S.* This map underscores that the massive red block of the Great Plains is actually a sea of light pink, an area that has little political weight due to its low population density. Instead, electoral power is concentrated in the blue-black patches, the largest of which stretches from southern Connecticut to Washington, D.C. Other such dark blue areas include Chicago, Detroit, and the Twin Cities. In California, unsurprisingly, San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles are blue-black as well. The role of “deep blue” cities and their inner suburbs in battleground states like Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, and Florida cannot be overestimated. Even Romney’s home base of Suffolk County, Massachusetts (where Boston is located) went 78% for the president. In 2008, Obama took cities even more convincingly, which allowed him to win North Carolina and Indiana as well.

Why exactly urban areas are overwhelmingly in the Democratic camp remains an interesting question. According to Emily Badger of TheAtlanticCities.com, Republican ideology “that leaves little room for the concept of “public good”, and that treats all public spending as if it were equally wasteful” is not embraced by cities that “demand, by definition, a greater role for government than a small rural town on the prairie”. Princeton Historian Kevin Kruse, interviewed by The New Republic’s Lydia DePillis, made the same point: “There are certain things in which the physical nature of a city, the fact the people are piled on top of each other, requires some notion of the public good. Conservative ideology works beautifully in the suburbs, because it makes sense spatially”. But cities by their nature not only require more public spending but also, Badger claims, are able to produce a better return on investment, measured in jobs created through transportation spending, in the number of citizens touched by public expenditures, in patents per capita, and so on.

Does this mean that the Democratic Party holds a monopoly on urban-friendly politics? Not necessarily. If Republicans can design ways to invest government money more efficiently, such policies would have more far-reaching repercussions in cities than in rural areas. Moreover, cities are centers of innovation and entrepreneurship, competition and the creation of wealth—all things that the GOP claims to promote. Yet, the 2012 Republican presidential campaign was not designed with city populations in mind. While some conservatives like Peggy Noonan pleaded for the Romney campaign to hold a rally in Brooklyn, and Paul Ryan wanted to campaign in cities on an anti-poverty message of economic empowerment, Romney advisors ultimately decided against those ideas. Moreover, many urbanites view Republican policies, such as banning same-sex marriage, making it easier for anyone to get a gun, and deporting the immigrant workers performing so many vital tasks as “promis[ing] to rip and tear at the immensely complex fabric of city life while sneering at the entire ‘urban vision of dense housing and government transit’”, says Kevin Baker of The New York Times.


Yet, historically, the GOP was not always an anti-urban party. From the Civil War to the Great Depression, Republicans used to carry the nation’s great cities. Philadelphia was dominated for decades by Republicans. In Chicago, a Republican mayor “Big Bill” Thompson presided over the city during the ascent of Al Capone. In the 1928 presidential election, the Republican Herbert Hoover swept to victory while carrying cities all across the country: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Birmingham, Houston, Dallas, Omaha, and Los Angeles. The antithesis of the GOP and cities started to appear during the Great Depression, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the cities—especially New York, under the liberal Republican reformer Fiorello H. La Guardia—into showcases for the New Deal. Federal money poured in, making cities alluring again, attracting the rural poor of all races. By 1950, almost two thirds of all Americans lived in urban areas. Yet in 1950s and 1960s the demographic trends shifted away from cities and into the suburbs. As late as 1980, Ronald Reagan was able to win the presidency without carrying a single major city.

But in the more recent elections it has become impossible, even unthinkable to gain the presidency without taking the cities. Nor is it likely that the situation will change in the near future. The country is growing more urban as urban population grows. Today, four out of five Americans live in an urban area, and while many still live in the suburbs, one in twelve Americans lives in a city of over a million people. Kaid Benfield of TheAtlanticCities.com lists a number of factors that are responsible for this latest shift in the demographic trend, ranging “from revitalization of declining neighborhoods to transit investment to a disaffection among suburbanites with long commutes and rising gasoline prices”. Yet, there are also deeper demographic changes:

“the portion of the housing market claimed by families with children, the prime market for suburban living, has been shrinking at the same time as the Millennial generation, which strongly favors walkable lifestyles and urban living, has been coming of age. Retiring baby boomers are also in many cases giving up large-lot living in favor of city life.”

While some pundits believe that the shift to city living will be temporary, driven by current recession, high levels of unemployment, and the reluctance of young adults to invest in the housing market, Benfield forecasts that the growth of cities will continue into the future, as American cities reinvent themselves by becoming cleaner, greener, safer, more prosperous, more fun—or at least trying to do so. The profile of a city dweller is changing as well: today more than ever before, urbanites own co-ops and condominiums rather than rent, are skilled and highly educated, and work out of their homes.

To make matters worse for the Republicans, cities are not only growing in size but are also becoming more and more minority-dominated. According to Nate Berg, “most of the largest metropolitan areas have already passed the minority-majority population threshold for their young populations”. In 36 of the top 50 metro areas the majority of children under the age of five are minorities. Los Angeles–Long Beach–Santa Ana, San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, and San Francisco–Oakland–Fremont are three representative metro areas in California, all having 78% or more of minority population under the age of 5. Around the country, eight metro areas are above 75%. Only one of the largest ten metro areas, Boston, falls below the 50% minority threshold, with just about 34% of its under 5 population representing a minority. Texas may be one of the particularly problematic states from the Republican perspective: its fast-growing Democrat-voting metro areas like San Antonio, Houston, and Austin are also at the top of the minority-majority ranking, all with 66% or more. Some pundits go as far as predicting that these cities could bring Texas—so far, the GOP stronghold—within the Democrats’ reach.

In the long term, the relationship that the GOP builds with the nation’s cities will most likely determine whether it can remain a major political player or whether it will be relegated to permanent minority party status.



*In this map the total population density serves as a proxy for voter density.

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