Big Sort
Where you live, how you vote.

Nov. 10 2008 12:22 PM

It's Time Now To Allow Politicians To Do Their Jobs

Anthropologist E.E. Evans-Prichard studied the Nuer, a pastoral people living in the Upper Nile region of Africa, herders who moved with their animals to the tune of the region's rivers. In flood times, Nuer tribes retreated to higher ground, and when the waters receded, the Nuer clans moved to the grassy valleys.

Nuer tribes were constantly crossing paths, and so they could easily fall into conflict over lost animals and scarce forage.  Professor Evans-Prichard wrote in the 1940s about the intricate ways the Nuer encouraged cooperation and resolved conflicts.

The Nuer put special faith in a group of arbiters known as "men of the earth." Men of the earth had no formal powers. They couldn't arrest people or make arbitrary decisions. But the Nuer granted these people a kind of local authority to settle disputes. If a fight broke out, a man of the earth could stop the conflict by running between the combatants and hoeing a line in the dirt. If a tribal member was killed in a fight, a man of the earth arbitrated compensation to be paid by the winner to the dead man's family.

The "man of the earth" was a deal-maker, a negotiator, a compromiser. He was the person given the job of representing all the conflicting interests of the tribes.

A man of the earth was a politician.

John McCain and Barack Obama began this campaign running as men of the earth—post partisans who promised to race between the red and the blue, hoeing a line in the turf that would bring the bickering to an end. That's not how these races ended, of course, not just because McCain or Obama changed but because the country didn't.

Over the last 30 years, most communities have grown either more Democratic or more Republican. Through an incremental process of migration and self-selection, people have clustered in like-minded neighborhoods, clubs, and churches.

Migration had consequences. Legislative districts grew more lopsided, and they elected more-partisan representatives. Politicians no longer mediated competing interests in their districts. They represented increasingly one-sided constituencies that grew more extreme in their ideological isolation.

The meaning of politics changed. Voters didn't want men of the earth. They wanted partisans.

Republicans, perhaps, first realized how the country was changing and catered to the division that Americans were creating. By 2008, however, it didn't matter who started it. This was the way we lived. A Guardian reporter  in deep-blue Brooklyn found a checkout clerk who wondered, as a "social experiment," what would happen if he donned a McCain button. A nearby shopper admitted she was still concerned about what might transpire on Election Day. "I'm worried about all the ignorant people—I don't mean that pejoratively, I mean uninformed people—who are out there and who will swing it away from Obama," Tamara said.

At McCain rallies, Obama is a "socialist," and a member of the Texas State Board of Education wrote that the Democrat "truly sympathizes" with terrorists and intends to declare martial law if elected. At one East Coast public university, a dean of undergraduate studies sent an e-mail to faculty reporting that there had been "an increase in complaints by students who believe a chilly climate exists for conservative view points. ..." Americans appear ready to end a culture of racism with this election—symbolically, at least—but prejudices based on what others think and where they live run wild.

The earth was what the Nuer had in common. If locusts swarmed or a drought persisted, every tribe suffered. When the grass was thick, they all prospered. They were called "men of the earth," anthropologist Max Gluckman wrote, because "the earth, undivided as the basis of society, (symbolized) not individual prosperity, fertility, and good fortune, but the general prosperity, fertility, and good fortune on which individual life depends."

What do Americans have in common today? Not much. Oh, we share a lot with our neighbors, with the people at our church. Too much, in fact. But we don't know fellow citizens just a few counties over. It takes a "social experiment" in some parts to imagine how it would be to live as a member of a different political party.

The danger the next president faces comes from his single-minded friends as much as his political opponents. Politicians need room to do their jobs. They need the authority to make deals with the other side. This isn't a power that's won on Election Day. It can come only from a people who come to realize that their well-being depends as much on the "ignorant people ... out there" as their like-minded and righteous neighbors.

Nov. 4 2008 8:20 AM

No, We Didn’t: America Hasn't Changed as Much as Tuesday’s Results Would Indicate

One week after a historic presidential campaign that ended with the election of a man who billed himself as a post-partisan candidate of a unified America, this country is more divided than it was four or eight years ago. Or, less abstractly, while some danced in the streets over Barack Obama's victory, others bought guns . Here are some preliminary results from Tuesday's election:

• Communities are just as partisan now as they were in 2004.


Most counties in the United States have grown either more Republican or more Democratic since the 1970s . In 1976, 26.8 percent of the nation's voters lived in a county where either Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter won by more than 20 percentage points. The number of people living in these "landslide counties" increased to 38 percent in 1992, to 45.3 percent in 2000, to 48.3 percent in 2004.

On Tuesday, 48.1 percent of the vote came from counties where either Obama or McCain won by 20 percentage points or more.

Partisanship is now more Democratic. Four years ago, 83 million people lived in Republican-landslide counties. Now it's closer to 53 million. In 2004, 64 million people lived in Democratic-landslide counties. In 2008, 94 million people lived in Obama-landslide counties.

That means that blue counties got bluer while red counties paled a tinge. The number of people living in counties that are overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic is unchanged from 2004.

• States are more divided.

Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz tracks the growing differences among states. He finds the same divisions in the country as four years ago, "only deeper."

In 1976, the average winning margin in the 50 states and Washington, D.C., was 10 percentage points. In 2000, it was 15 points. In 2004 it was 16 points. In 2008 the average winning margin for the 50 states and D.C. was 17.4 percentage points.

There are more landslide states (where a candidate won by 10 points or more). In 1976, there were 19 blowout states plus the District of Columbia. In 2004, there were 29 blowout states plus D.C.

In 2008, there were 36 landslide states plus D.C.

And there were fewer states where the election was relatively competitive, less than five percentage points. In 1976, 20 states were competitive. By 2004, there were only 11 competitive states. This time out, only seven states had margins of less than five points. (They were Missouri, North Carolina, Indiana, Florida, Montana, Ohio, and Virginia.)

"There may be only one United States of America, as Sen. Obama says," Abramowitz said, "but the divide between the red states and the blue states is deeper than at any time in the past 60 years."

• The division between rural America and urban America grew wider.

In 1976, there was little difference in the voting patterns of Americans living in rural and urban counties. By 2004, George Bush won 59 percent of the vote in the nation's rural counties while John Kerry took 40 percent.

Obama did better than Kerry, winning 42.8 percent of the rural vote overall, and he did much better than that in the battleground states. In Indiana, for example, Kerry won only 31.9 percent of the rural vote. Obama won 43 percent of the rural vote and, with it, the state.

Meanwhile, Obama's vote in the cities jumped dramatically over what the Democrat polled in '04. John Kerry took 51.6 percent of the urban vote. Barack Obama won 57 percent of the vote in the core metropolitan counties.

In a sense, 2008 was the inverse of 2004. Four years ago, George W. Bush tuned up the vote in rural and exurban counties and battled to stay close in urban America. In this election, Obama pumped out votes in urban precincts and then did a bit better than Kerry or Al Gore did in rural and exurban counties.

As a result, the gap between the urban and rural vote increased from '04 to '08.

Republican and Democratic counties were entirely different kinds of places. The average population of an Obama landslide county was 278,601. The average McCain landslide county had 37,475 people.

• Modern political campaigns continue to be designed to increase political divisions.

Obama's rural campaign consisted of finding the "urban" vote in small towns. For instance, Obama held a rally in Harrisonburg, Va., in the last week of the campaign. It was an unlikely place to find a Democrat. Harrisonburg had voted for every Republican presidential candidate since before the end of World War II. The last Democrat to visit that neck of the Shenandoah Valley was Stephen Douglas in 1860.

Obama targeted Harrisonburg because it was home to two universities, James Madison and Eastern Mennonite, and Mary Baldwin College was tucked into nearby Staunton (which also hadn't voted Democratic in more than 60 years). These were likely Obama voters, and so the campaign went after them. The James Madison precinct recorded the most votes ever -and Obama won Harrisonburg and Staunton.

The counties surrounding these two college towns, however, voted for McCain by a 7-to-3 margin.

Obama plucked these college towns from all over rural America. The only county Obama won in southeast Ohio was Athens, home of Ohio University. In western (Appalachian) North Carolina, Obama won Watauga County, home of Appalachian State University. There was one speck of blue in the Idaho panhandle: Latah County, where students attend the University of Idaho.

Political campaigns these days aren't designed to change minds. Candidates target voters who are already likely to support them-and then the campaigns feed these voters more of what they want to hear. That's a strategy that is all about polarization, and it works.

• People kept sorting.

From 2003 to 2007, people leaving counties that voted Democratic in 2004 likely moved to other Democratic counties, according to statistician Robert Cushing's parsing of federal migration data. The trend tended to increase the number of Democrats in counties that already voted for Democratic presidential candidates.

Republicans didn't cluster as strongly over that four-year stretch. In fact, Republican counties in Democratic states got a majority of their new residents from people who were moving from counties that voted for John Kerry. That could be a reason the Republican vote softened in some areas in '08.

This is the Big Sort , the self-selection of people into increasingly like-minded communities at microscopic levels of society.

• Young people clustered, and where they gathered, the vote was Democratic.

People of first-time voting age (18 to 21) increased their numbers in Obama-landslide counties four times faster than in McCain-landslide counties. According to Cushing's calculations, there were 10.5 million 18-to-21-year-old voters in counties Obama won. In McCain counties, there were 6.4 million of these young voters.

The Sort Continues

The vote last week was transformative in a sense. In many ways, however, the election produced no change at all. The country is split in much the same way it was divided four and eight years ago. People continue to sort by age and by way of life. As a result, our communities (and states) are growing more like-minded.

Oh, and there is the continuing and stark racial division in both the geography and how Americans live. In Republican-landslide counties, blacks and Hispanics are distinct minorities. Where McCain won by 20 percentage points or more, there were five Anglos of voting age for every black or Hispanic, Cushing found.  In Obama-landslide counties, there are 1.3 whites for every black or Hispanic. Obama counties and McCain counties are very different places.

Liberals and Democrats seem to think the country's divisions have disappeared just because their man won. And it is easy to ignore people on the other side when they aren't your neighbors. But that doesn't mean the country is less polarized-because it isn't.

(Editor's note: This is the final post for Slate 's Big Sort blog. You can read more from Bill Bishop at his Web site covering rural America, the Daily Yonder , and you can read more about the Big Sort itself in his book of the same name.)

Nov. 3 2008 9:14 AM

Still Undecided? Ask Your Neighbor.

Undecideds don't vote on issues. If they were interested in issues—or even in the personalities of candidates—they wouldn't be undecideds. "They are not radical, not liberal, not conservative, not reactionary," C. Wright Mills wrote in 1953, "they are inactionary; they are out of it." Mills was writing about the torpor of Eisenhower-era Americans, but this is also a good description of undecideds a day before the 2008 election.

How do you get "inactionaries" to vote? Mostly, undecideds split evenly . Or, Pew Research Center's Andy Kohut tells us , half of the undecideds don't vote at all.

In the era of the big sort, the strategy for turning out so-called base voters and undecideds is the same. Politics is no longer about convincing individual voters with long lists of proposals and policy papers. Campaigns move communities of people—neighborhoods, congregations, home-schoolers, hunters—to the polls. And as these "peoples" steam to the vote, they pull along the undecideds in their wake.

"Voting research trends have ... shown that independents are very susceptible to social influence, often turning to others in their local environment for advice on political matters," University of Maryland political scientist James Gimpel wrote  at the Christian Science Monitor Web site Patchwork Nation . That makes sense. After all, if you don't know much about HD television, you turn to the neighborhood expert who can guide you through the "dynamic contrast ratios" of a purchase.

"As a result, independents' decision making can be predicted from knowing the viewpoints of those who live close to them," Gimpel continued. "Independents living in neighborhoods and households full of Democrats will be inclined to vote Democratic, and those interacting with Republicans will most often support the Republican. There are, of course, exceptions, but this pattern holds up in highly competitive elections."

A candidate doesn't win independents by moving to the ideological center. A campaign energizes partisans, and they will tow the undecided voters living nearby.

"In this sense, 'base' and 'independent' strategies complement one another and are not mutually exclusive," Gimpel wrote. "When independents begin to pay attention to the campaign, they'll typically turn to the partisans they live among for guidance. By playing to the base, a campaign is also likely to reach independent voters situated in the midst of that base."

Excited people increase turnout. Close races increase turnout. In this sense, both campaigns benefit from the sense that the polls are tightening.

Leaving a Red State Behind Might Turn It Blue

Over the past four years, more than 23 million Americans have moved from one state to another. Statistician Bob Cushing (co-author of The Big Sort ) has been busy at the computer the last few weeks trying to understand how all those Mayflower trucks and U-Haul trailers might affect state results Tuesday.

We don't know who moved. We don't know their opinions or their party preferences. We do know, however, whether these movers came from a county that voted Democratic or Republican in 2004.* Most counties are overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic. So Bob counted the people moving into and out of the Republican and Democratic counties of swing states. What he found are some interesting changes in state populations over the last four years.  

For instance, Republican counties in Ohio lost 101,000 people while Democratic counties gained just over 6,000—a net change of 107,000 people in the Democrats' favor. (Bush's total margin in '04 was only 118,000 votes.)

Nevada was a red state in 2004. But according to Cushing's calculations, the net gain in Democratic counties topped 251,000 people. Meanwhile, Republican counties in Nevada lost 86,511 people.

New Hampshire, blue in '04, is still a tossup, perhaps because Republican counties there grew by 56,000 since 2004 while Democratic counties showed a net outflow of 40,000. Maybe that helps explain why John McCain zoomed to Peterborough on Sunday.

Virginia is trending Democratic partly because the Democratic counties in Virginia are growing faster than the Republican counties—a net increase of 32,000 people since the last election.

Some states showed little change at all. Indiana, for instance. Florida and Arizona showed huge increases in the population of Republican counties.

People move. When they do, they bring their politics with them. Over the last four years, there's been enough internal migration to change the vote in a half-dozen states. Those are the places both campaigns are visiting during these last few hours.

(*The Internal Revenue Service releases a file every year showing the number or returns and dependents who moved from one county to another during the previous years. This is a good count of how many families and people left one county and moved to another.)


Oct. 30 2008 9:47 AM

How Running a Campaign Is Like Building a Megachurch

The model for the modern political campaign is the evangelical megachurch.


This isn't a partisan observation. Both George Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama adopted the basic organizing techniques that many ministers have been using since the 1970s to grow their churches to stupendous size. And why not? They work.

The megachurch was built on an idea born in India by an American missionary. Donald McGavran spent half a century overseas, and he used much of that time to discover the way churches could convert large numbers of people to Christianity. McGavran observed that converts didn't come to the church one by one. They came in groups. And those groups were socially coherent—castes, villages, or families. The key to church growth wasn't in bringing individuals to Christianity but in converting groups, peoples. And these groups would come if they were appealed to as a "homogenous unit."

"The individual does not think of himself as a self-sufficient unit, but as a part of the group," McGavran wrote in this 1955 book,

The Bridges of God

. People don't want to come to a church where they hear a different language or eat strange foods. "Men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers," McGavran wrote. McGavran said ministers needed to understand the culture of their constituents and recommended that they use the insights of anthropology to tailor their appeals to homogenous groups.

The church establishment largely ignored McGavran. The missionary arrived in the United States at a time when the pews were crammed with parishioners. The mainline churches needed architects and builders in the 1950s, not some bearded missionary who had spent the last several decades in India. But church membership began to decline quite suddenly in the mid-1960s, and by the '70s a new generation of young ministers was looking for a way to stimulate church membership, to fulfill the Great Commission's call to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:16-20). They discovered Donald McGavran and began to use his ideas to create churches in the "homogenous units" (i.e., suburbs) being created on the edges of cities.

One of those young ministers was Rick Warren, who stumbled across an article on McGavran in an old Christian magazine. "As I sat there and read the article on Donald McGavran," Warren wrote in

The Purpose-Driven Church

, "I had no idea that it would dramatically impact the direction of my ministry."

Rick Warren's story is now megachurch legend. He founded his Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., and he used McGavran's techniques to attract members. Warren did his market research, even creating an anthropological composite of the target Saddleback member. He's "Saddleback Sam," a Docker-clad, cell-phone-carrying white guy who doesn't like organized religion and doesn't like neckties. That was the prototype for Warren's "homogenous unit," and so he built a church where Sam wouldn't have to cross many "barriers" to join. Sam wouldn't have to dress up for church, and he could look into the sanctuary and see more Sams, a "homogenous unit" of churchgoers. Warren stocked up on flowered shirts.

Ministers building these churches realized friends and neighbors were the best recruiters of new members. Like attracted like, which was an organizing tradition among evangelists. When supplicants answering the Rev. Billy Graham's altar call streamed to the foot of the stage, each would be met by one of the evangelist's helpers. The pairings weren't random. Graham insisted that young women meet young women. Older men greeted older men. Graham understood that the best way to cement the conversion was to show new believers a reflection of themselves within the church.

And the most effective recruiting tool was for friends to "witness" to friends their personal stories of salvation (Acts 1:8).

The marketing techniques all turned inward—friends talking to friends about their experiences in a church built for "people like us," which was the title of a popular book on church growth. The church wasn't designed to transform but to mirror a way of life. And the techniques worked.

It took until 2004 for what was common knowledge among megachurch chaplains to become the latest gimmick for selling a president. The Bush campaign in 2002 had experimented with different techniques to increase voter turnout, from door-to-door canvassers to the noxious (and utterly ineffective) robo-calls. Their tests found that personal contact with a voter was good but that an appeal coming from a friend or neighbor worked best. If it was clear to voters that the canvasser came from the same social hive, Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd told me, turnout jumped.

The Republican campaign in '04 recruited neighbors to contact neighbors, and it enlisted respected community members to serve as Bush "navigators," local surrogates for the president. The Bush organizers I talked with in Oregon and Minnesota instructed their all-volunteer canvassers to "witness" their support for the president. "We weren't there to convince anybody," one Oregon organizer told me. "We were there to give testimony of why we were for George Bush. And that's very religious."

The strategy was to reflect voters' beliefs and ways of life back on to themselves, so that the 2004 campaign wasn't as much about the re-election of a president and his policies as it was an affirmation of a local way of life.

The Democrats learned their lesson—they used paid workers who obviously were "not from around here" to do their canvassing in '04—and so this year the Obama campaign recruited an "army of persuasion" based on the Bush neighbor-to-neighbor model.

, the Obama campaign has hunters talking to hunters, women talking to women. At training sessions, "Obama Organizing Fellows"

to develop short, personal narratives that will explain to their neighbors how they came to support the Democrat—to witness.

Neighbors witnessing to neighbors is a marketing technique suited to Americans, who are increasingly sequestering themselves in communities, churches, and clubs with those who share similar ways of life and politics. The churches created over the last three decades have become some of the most politically segregated institutions in the country, a result of an organizing strategy built on the intentional molding of a "homogenous unit."

These tactics aren't designed to "sell" people something new or different but to show that the product (a church, a new concoction of PowerBar, a candidate) embodies the community's beliefs and lifestyle. "The message you've got to send, more than any other message, is that Barack Obama is just like us," Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill told the Obama fellows,

. Exactly.

Politicians have been packaging image from the beginning: McKinley sitting on the front porch, Truman speaking from the back of a train, Madison Avenue selling a new Nixon. In the end, however, the message was the same: "Vote for me." Campaigns today are doing something different. They attempt to manage behavior by creating a social environment that encourages people to vote for themselves. The most important message a campaign has to convey is one of flattery, that the candidate is "just like us."

Self-government, however, is the opposite of self-love. Democracy is about meeting and coming to terms with people who look, talk, believe, and think differently from us. Government might work better if that democratic exercise began for voters during the campaign rather than the day after inauguration.

Oct. 29 2008 10:18 AM

America's Partisan Reading List

Before last week, every time Valdis Krebs mapped the reading habits of those buying political books through, he found a few volumes read by both the left and the right .

Krebs used data from Amazon to discover the patterns among readers of the top-selling political books. He would find the other books that readers of, say, Liberal Fascism , would buy from Amazon. As he accumulated data, Krebs found that most books were connected to others. People who bought Liberal Fascism also bought The Obama Nation .


The pattern was always the same. There was one group of readers who bought conservative books and another that supported liberal authors. The maps Krebs made of Americans' book-buying patterns pictured two swarms: liberals on one side and conservatives on the other.

There were always one or two books in the middle-books both sides read, connector books between readers who otherwise had little in common. In Krebs' first map in 2003, the connector book was What Went Wrong , Bernard Lewis' book on the Islamic world. The books in the middle would change with the times, but there was always something both sides were reading in common .

Until last week.

Krebs did another run on his Amazon book project, and the swarms flew onto the page, left and right, but the connectors were gone. The two sides read nothing in common. Readers came to the week before the election isolated, separated by walls made out of books.


Krebs' map is worth a few minutes of study. You can see there are fewer books on the red side. That doesn't mean conservatives are buying fewer books, just that they are concentrating their purchases among fewer titles. And look at the book on the bottom left of the red web- Rules for Radicals , Saul Alinsky's book on community organizing. (Conservatives are studying their opponent.) There's a separate cluster of readers of Obama books, people who aren't connected to any of the Bush-bashing books clustered nearby. There are no books about McCain that seem to interest either the left or the right.

Given a choice, people will go to places where their beliefs are reinforced. In a recent study of Yahoo Finance discussion boards, three University of Texas business professors found that stock-pickers cluster. Those who think Apple is going up talk to each other on one thread. Those who think GE will fall even more find their way to the same little spot on the Web. Technology doesn't help people find new ways of thinking or seeing the world -- even when it might be in their financial interest. We still hunker down with those who hold our opinions.

(See " Melting-Pot or Homophily? : An Empirical Investigation of User Interactions in Virtual Investment-Related Communities," by Hsuan-Wei Michelle Chen, Bin Gu, and Prabhudev Konana.)

Morningside Analytics has developed its Political Video Barometer to discover the YouTubes being linked to by liberal and conservative bloggers. Who'd a-thunk the Batman vs. Penguin debate would be a liberal clip (linked to by 82 liberal bloggers but only 14 conservatives)? The 2001 Obama radio interview , in which the candidate talked about the "redistribution of wealth," was linked to by 262 conservative columnists but only 20 liberals.

When the YouTube videos are charted , they swarm, too: liberal YouTubes in one group and conservative videos in another.

And that's the way we live, in more ways than are imaginable. Full-size pickup drivers support John McCain at the same rate as white evangelicals (66 percent), according to a survey by Kelley Blue Book. Seven out of 10 Mini Cooper owners back Barack Obama.

We read apart, live apart, watch apart, blog apart, and drive apart; we are one country that lacks any shared experiences or, it seems, common purpose.

Oct. 28 2008 10:46 AM

The Stuff in Your Bedroom Signals How You Vote

When Sam Gosling studied the differences between liberal and conservative college students, he and his colleagues went snooping for cleaning supplies. In the dorm rooms of conservatives, they found more cans of Ajax and ironing boards.

In an unpublished paper titled "The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives," Gosling, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, and three other colleagues* looked for the underlying personality traits that defined left and right. Gosling is the author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You . He's a specialist in analyzing what the things people have around them say about their personalities and beliefs. When it comes to politics, your stuff does define you.

Gosling's theory is that "ideological differences between left and right are partially rooted in basic personality dispositions." In particular, Gosling and his co-authors hypothesized that liberals and conservatives differed in two major "personality dimensions." Liberals are more likely to be open to experiences. Conservatives would score higher on measures of conscientiousness. Liberals would be more motivated by curiosity, creativity, and diversity of experiences. Conservatives would value following the rules, self-control, and order.

The psychologists conducted three tests, and they all produced evidence that liberals did show more openness to experience and conservatives did tend to be attracted to normality. The social scientists took polls and observed subjects in these tests, but the snooping came when investigators looked for physical clues in dorm rooms and offices.

Conservatives' bedrooms tended to have more calendars and postage stamps. They had more flags and sports posters. Conservatives' bedrooms were neater and better lit—they had more laundry baskets, ironing boards, cleaning supplies, and sewing thread.

Liberals' bedrooms had a greater variety of books (especially books about travel, feminism, and music). They had more CDs and a greater variety of music (folk, world, classical). Liberal bedrooms had more art supplies, cultural memorabilia, and maps of other countries.

These same traits carried over to the work life. Conservatives' offices "tended to be more conventional, less stylish, and less comfortable compared with liberal offices." Liberals' offices were more colorful and contained more CDs and "a greater variety of books."

In summarizing their findings, the four authors concluded, "Liberals did appear to be more open, tolerant, creative, curious, expressive, enthusiastic, and drawn to novelty and diversity, in comparison with conservatives, who appeared to be more conventional, orderly, organized, neat, clean, withdrawn, reserved, rigid, and relatively intolerant." Ideological differences were indeed more than skin deep.

And these personality differences varied geographically across the nation. In an earlier paper , Gosling found that those open to experience were more likely to live in California, Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maryland, and Colorado. 

Conscientious states included Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida.

Notice a pattern? Like that all but two of the "openness" states in 2004 voted for John Kerry and all but one of the conscientious states sided with George Bush?

Statistician Bob Cushing found these same differences at the metropolitan level using an entirely different set of data. In a study of how people were sorting by city, Cushing compared personality traits in high-tech cities and low-tech cities. High-tech cities were determined by their tech output and patents per capita. There were 21 cities that placed above the national average in both categories, metro areas such as Boise, Austin, Atlanta, Seattle, Denver, Los Angeles, Boston, and Portland.

People living in high-tech cities were more interested in other places and cultures. They were more likely to "try anything once." They were more likely to be optimistic and to engage in individualistic activities. High-tech cities grew increasingly Democratic in presidential elections from 1980 to 2004 as they collected more people who described themselves as "liberal." (See our book, The Big Sort , for details.)

The 130 cities with the lowest levels of tech output and patent production grew increasingly Republican. Cushing found that people living in these places were more supportive of traditional authority, more family-oriented, more likely to engage in social activities with other people and more likely to attend church. People who described themselves as conservative were more likely to move there.

The differences—political, ideological, and cultural—were growing between low-tech and high-tech metros.

The election next week may well be a landslide. That doesn't mean the basic divisions in the country have gone away. "Political orientation appears to pervade almost every aspect of our public and private lives, possibly now more than in recent decades," Gosling and his co-authors write. "Not only does it describe how we think about and what we value in terms of government and society as a whole, but it also appears to leave its mark on how we behave toward others, travel, decorate our walls, clean our bodies and our homes, and on how we choose to spend our free time."

The Republican Party is likely to end next Tuesday in a shambles. That's when the countdown begins for the time when these basic American differences will re-emerge in our politics.

*"The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives: Personality Profiles, Interaction Styles, and the Things They Leave Behind" was co-authored by Gosling, Dana R. Carney at Columbia University, John T. Jost of New York University, and Jeff Potter of Atof Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

Oct. 27 2008 8:39 AM

Which Side Is Trying To Steal the Election? The Other One.

My wife coined the term prespiracy to describe a conspiracy that had not yet occurred. It's a future conspiracy imagined into reality.

Well, the prespiracies have started. Republicans are convinced ACORN has hijacked the election by registering legions of Democratic voters (all named Mickey Mouse).

Not wanting to be out-prespiracied, People for the American Way bought a full page in the New York Times with a 125-point, single-word headline: "Fraud." The liberal-leaning group warned that Republicans were attempting to "suppress the vote" with efforts "which are well under way."

Predictions of another Rove-inspired election coup resonate among Democrats. My Democratic neighborhood's Internet newsgroup was buzzing last week with stories about jimmied-with Diebold voting machines, easily hacked vote-counting programs, and tales about how the last two presidential contests had been swiped.

(How liberal is my 'hood? Well, interspersed with last week's election banter was a long-running conversation about how a neighbor should "live-trap" rats that had invaded her house so that they could be relocated. Rats, like cats, we learned, have an ability to find their way back home, so the rodent-friendly neighbor's initial question concerned the distance one needed to transport the vermin before it was safe to give them their rightful freedom.)

Both sides are front-loading conspiracies a week before the vote, apparently in order to make sure next week's election will lack legitimacy for at least half the country. (Maybe 40 percent, given John McCain's current standing.) Nobody wants to end Election Day with the simple admission "We lost."

I'm from Kentucky, so I know about buying votes. It happens. The mayor of Pineville, Ky., was indicted this fall for trading money and drugs for votes. (Pills have replaced a traditional half pint.) The mayor's son has already pleeded guilty. Votes were going for $10 to $20 a pop. A few years ago, across the mountain in Virginia, votes were going for sacks of pork rinds .

But before everyone goes totally over the edge about theft of the presidency, now might be a good time to revisit '04, an election many Ds still believe was pirated. The evidence of this theft comes from the exits polls, which were quite different from the final results. The exits showed Kerry winning by three percentage points. He didn't, of course—he lost by 2.5 percent in official returns—and the discrepancy between what became seen as the scientific certainty of exit polls and the messiness of a full vote count set off a thousand stories about stolen ballots.

The botched exit poll was a mystery, and so Edison/Mitofsky, the outfit that conducted the Election Day survey, set off to discover where things went astray. What they found was a country that has more to fear from division, distrust, and partisanship than election fraud.

The primary reason the exit polls in 2004 were screwy was that Republicans didn't want to talk to exit poll workers. Bush supporters especially refused to talk to younger exit poll workers with graduate degrees, according to the final report from Edison/Mitofsky. (No, the poll-takers didn't wear their degrees on their chests, like Boy Scout merit badges. In our culture, apparently, you can pick out the well-educated on sight.) More Kerry voters talked to poll-takers, and so the results skewed Democratic. The official report didn't speculate on why Republicans skirted the exit pollers, except to say that "in this election voters were less likely to complete questionnaires from younger interviewers."

Republicans may have also been put off by the network-news insignia carried on the poll-takers' clipboards. That's not too far fetched. The Pew Research Center found that Republicans had grown more distrustful of all media over the last decade. Republicans were less willing than Democrats to talk to exit poll workers from "television networks," according to one Fox News poll.

(This story doesn't end so easily. Here is a response to the Edison/Mitofsky report. Meanwhile, Mark Hertsgaard in Mother Jones was not convinced the election was stolen.) 

The likely answer to the 2004 election hubbub is that the breakdown in the exit poll wasn't mechanical or criminal. It was cultural. The exit poll was fouled up because some people refused to talk to those they believed had a different political persuasion. And they thought they could tell their political opponents just by looking.

The failures of voting machines are a continuing headache. We all wonder why cash machines spit out greenbacks almost flawlessly but electronic ballot boxes seem to work no better than Crackerjack toys. But constructing a ballot machine that accurately counts votes is a problem with a fix.

It's tougher to mend a culture in which political opponents accept as a given that the other side will steal votes, a culture that is so divided that people refuse to talk to fellow citizens just because they look like they might be voting for the opposing party and where no election result is ever final.


Oct. 21 2008 8:05 PM

An Election Story for Those Who Like To Watch

Enough already with the words. Think of this as The Big Sort scorecard for the election, several different ways of seeing how the geographic clustering of like-minded citizens plays out in presidential elections.

First, the sort itself . Here we compare the "landslide counties" in the 1976 and 2004 elections. (Landslide counties are those in which one candidate won by 20 percentage points or more, counting only Republican and Democratic votes.) Both '76 and '04 were close contests, but the distribution of the vote changed dramatically over those 28 years.

In 1976, 26.8 percent of voters lived in a landslide county. (Democratic landslide counties are in black; Republican landslides are gray.) In close elections, the percentage of voters living in landslide counties rose steadily. By 2004, 48.3 percent of voters lived in a county where the contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry wasn't close at all. About six of every 10 counties were won by landslide margins in '04.



In 1976, Democrats won the vote in rural America. Bill Clinton broke even in rural America in 1996, and then rural counties went solidly Republican. So did the exurbs. Cities—particularly cities that produced loads of technology and patents—swerved Democratic.

Basically, the more dense the population, the greater the Democratic vote.

One way to track the election is by this rural/exurban/urban breakdown in each state. Thanks to Tim Murphy and the Daily Yonder , we do that in the chart below for the 2004 election. You can see that rural and exurban votes were essential to President Bush's victory.

(For those who wonder about such things, "rural" here are what the OMB and the census classify as "non-metro." "Urban" counties are called "metro" by the feds. Geographer Tim Murphy created an "exurban" category from "metro" counties where 40 percent to 50 percent of the residents live in rural settings. On the bottom line, you can see that rural counties had 17.4 percent of the vote, exurban counties had 9.2 percent of the vote, and urban counties had 73.4 percent of the vote.)

Given The New Yorker 's recent interest in the political significance of ancestry, I wondered why we shouldn't  go straight to the source. This map comes from our friends at the U.S. Census. It shows the ancestry group with the largest population in each county. (Ancestry is self-reported.) It's sort of fun to switch back and forth between the 2004 landslide map and the ancestry map. You can see that Democrats didn't do well where the dominant ancestry group was "American." Maybe these are the folks Gov. Sarah Palin had in mind .



Oct. 21 2008 9:11 AM

Spank Your Kids? You Likely Vote Republican.

While the rest of political journalism continues to parse the electorate by ways of life described by the U.S. census— Matt Bai gets up close and chummy with "white guys" in the Times over the weekend—we at The Big Sort will consider two measures that are much more telling:

Spanking and shacking.

Yes, if you really want to know how people will vote, forget "white working class" or "single, college-educated women" and find out the important stuff—like whether a potential voter thinks it's OK to give the kiddo a swat.

Mark Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler have done some remarkable (and fun) research into the relationship between child rearing and politics. They saw that the National Election Studies surveys in 1992, 2000, and 2002 presented voters with pairs of attributes. The surveys ask, for example, if voters thought it more admirable if a child was independent or showed respect for elders. Should a child be obedient or self-reliant? Curious or well-mannered? Considerate or well-behaved?

George Lakoff described American society as being divided between "two different forms of family-based morality," the "strict father" and the "nurturant parent." The two political scientists realized these questions essentially fell on either side of Lakoff's division—and given the nature of the survey, they could see if there was a political connection between parenting styles and party choice.

There was. Republicans favored respect, obedience, good manners, and being well-behaved. They were strict fathers. Democrats, meanwhile, were nurturant parents.

Hetherington and Weiler could see this split widen over time. (Thirty years ago, after all, nearly everyone was a strict father.) By the time of the latest survey, parenting styles were a better indicator of political affiliation than income.

The two academics also measured those who favored spanking as discipline for children. They found that the "correlation between traditional parenting practices—the 'spare the rod, spoil the child' approach—and voting for President Bush in 2004 is remarkably strong."

And those styles had a geography. Massachusetts has the lowest percentage of people who favor the switch and the lowest percentage of voters for Bush. Those in Vermont, Rhode Island, and New York were also unlikely to spank and were very likely to vote for John Kerry.

Meanwhile, the spanking states—Idaho, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Montana, Alabama, Kansas, Tennessee, and Indiana—are, for the most part, reliably Republican even in this year's Democratic-trending election.

OK, how about shacking?

Demographer Ron Lesthaeghe was mapping changes in family formation in the U.S. when he noticed that "blue" states were different from "red" ones. White women in Democratic Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, California, Maryland, Illinois, Minneapolis, New Hampshire, and Delaware were both marrying and starting families later in life, more like women in Nordic countries than those in Utah, Kansas, and Wyoming. In particular, Lesthaeghe found, the higher the rates of cohabitation before marriage—i.e., shacking—the higher the vote for Kerry.
The demographer said that he "could find no better way to predict the vote for Bush" in 2004 than how people were creating families. The more American families formed like the Dutch, the greater the vote for Democratic presidential candidates. ( Here is one of Lesthaeghe's papers.)

Lesthaeghe, Weiler, and Hetherington aren't saying propensity to spank or to shack cause people to vote one way or the other. Their point is that family formation and child-rearing attitudes are part of a worldview. Our politics today are divided by worldview, not by demographic type. And those divisions are real and deep, as this increasingly bitter campaign attests.

"Little wonder our politics today are polarized," Hetherington and Weiler concluded. "The values of Republicans and Democrats are very much at odds. We do not agree about the most fundamental of issues."

Nor do we live in the same places. Spankers to this side, please. Shackers over here. 

Oct. 20 2008 9:19 AM

Why the Workplace Is Essential to Democracy

"Jennifer" called into the NPR show


to describe a wonderful democratic experiment she and her husband were conducting at the business they own in North Carolina.

Their firm has about 100 workers, and she and her husband believe that "it's important for all of our employees to really be engaged and aware citizens." So Jennifer holds what she calls "lunch 'n' learns" throughout the year. Sometimes employees will lead discussions on issues over the noon hour. (Workers prepare presentations on, say, health care and then talk about the issue from several sides.) During elections, employees may bring in candidates, who are allowed to talk to employees who come to the sessions. No one is required to attend, but Jennifer said her workers like coming to the events.

"We find that when we have things fostered in a really disciplined but civil way, we get people feeling much better about talking about it," Jennifer said. "It doesn't become as heated, but people become educated and engaged."

Wonderful, right? Well, there was an employment attorney on the show who warned Jennifer to watch out. "If Jennifer was my client," said New Jersey lawyer Stacey Adams, "I would probably strongly advise her against doing what she's doing."


There are a "lot of potential problems, even if it's done during nonwork activities such as lunchtime," Adams continued. "I think that if one candidate endorses particular views which are deemed offensive to ... other employees, that could present a problem."

Welcome to America, where a lunchtime discussion of ideas among citizens who might have differing opinions "could present a problem."

Unfortunately, if people don't talk about politics at work, there are very few places left where they might have a face-to-face discussion with those who have a different opinion. Churches are now among the most politically segregated institutions in America. Neighborhoods have tipped either Republican or Democratic, and they have kept tipping as like-minded people have clustered. Even volunteer groups have grown more homogeneous.

Americans love to talk about politics. They just don't find many times when they talk about politics with those who have different political outlooks. (See Diana Mutz's fantastic book

for the details on our country's love of political conformity.) Educated people are particularly skilled at avoiding contrary opinions, according to Mutz, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She writes that Americans with less than a high-school diploma have the greatest diversity in political discussion mates. Those with the most narrow political lives are Americans who have suffered through graduate school.

Democracy is greased with tolerance and understanding, and those virtues are more abundant when people who disagree find themselves meeting regularly face-to-face. John Stuart Mill wrote in 1848, "It's hardly possible to overstate the value ... of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar." It's hardly possible to overstate the rarity with which this kind of exchange happens in America.

There is one place in the social landscape where we are pushed into settings with a mixed political crowd. That's at work. "Of all the contexts with the potential for political interaction, the workplace currently has the greatest capacity for exposing people to political dialogue across lines of political difference,"


The workplace is one of the few settings where people of different political beliefs have to deal with each other, so workplaces are one of the last places where Americans are placed "in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves." In North Carolina, Jennifer's lunch sessions are the kind of hard, day-to-day work of democratic life that most of us avoid.