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

Where you live, how you vote.
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.

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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.)

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