Why House Members Aren't Supposed To Just "Vote Their Districts"
House members say phone calls are running 9-1 against the financial rescue bill, and that raises a question. If people really oppose the bill in those numbers—and there are signs they don't —shouldn't "representatives" vote that way?
That was the practice in Colonial New England town meetings, writes Michael Schudson in The Good Citizen . Citizens elected representatives at town gatherings, and "there was a tendency for the meetings to control representatives by providing them mandates or instructions to carry out."
The ties between elected official and voter were looser in the middle and Southern colonies, but the notion that representatives should pay any attention at all to citizens was something that distinguished American democracy. In Britain, representation didn't mean that there would be consultation with voters. Accountability came with elections. Between votes, British representatives made up their own minds. In the colonies, however, representation "had begun to imply, as it did not in England, that the representative should not only use his own judgment but also speak for his constituency." Representatives were "expected to possess local knowledge and to identify with the interests of their constituents." They were supposed to "vote the district."
The conflict early in American democracy, Schudson wrote, tugged between "representatives' obligation to their own best judgment of the public good and their responsibility to the interests of the people."
During the debate on the Constitution, there was an attempt to tie the votes of representatives directly to the will of the people living in the district. (Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein tells this story the best in Why Societies Need Dissent .) The question was whether the Bill of Rights should contain a "right to instruct" representatives—a Constitutional guarantee that citizens could tell their elected officials exactly how to vote on particular pieces of legislation. Anti-federalists made this proposal as a way to restrict their representatives, to constrain the power of the federal government. It was also, to be sure, a more direct and complete fulfillment of the democratic promise of the revolution. After all, shouldn't politicians do what voters demand?
The country chose a different course, wisely so, according to Sunstein. Early American communities were isolated and extraordinarily homogenous. That insularity was a disadvantage. Decisions were made with limited information and without hearing different points of views. Moreover, like-minded groups were prone to grow more extreme in their views over time, increasing the chance that decisions made locally might be indefensibly severe.
Connecticut's Roger Sherman made the argument against the right to instruct amendment:
The words (of the right to instruct amendment) are calculated to mislead the people, by conveying an idea that they have a right to control the debates of the Legislature. This cannot be admitted to be just, because it would destroy the object of their meeting. I think, when the people have chosen a representative, it is his duty to meet others from the different parts of the Union, and consult, and agree with them on such acts as are for the general benefit of the whole community. If they were to be guided by instructions, there would be no use in deliberation.
The purpose of pulling people together from around a vast and quite diverse country was that you might actually learn something from a representative with a different point of view. Sunstein told me that one of the most profound insights of those who rejected the "right to instruct" was "to see heterogeneity as a creative force which would enable people not to hate each other but to think more productively what might be done to solve problems. It turned this vice into a virtue. I think that was the most important theoretical contribution the framers made. And at the best moments in our history, that's what's happened."
It would be a stretch to say this has been one of the country's "best moments." Congressional districts, even states, have grown more homogenous as people have sorted into like-minded communities . The advantages of deliberation Sherman recognized were lost in partisan rigidity long before the financial system needed bailing out.
The benefit of this crisis (and we're really scratching to find one) is that perhaps Congress will rediscover the use of diversity. That's a start. We'll worry about enabling "people not to hate each other" another day.
What's Missing Is Followership
Dan Balz at the
a "collective breakdown of leadership in Washington," while the paper's
the country faces "A Test of Leadership." Over at the
, Jackie Calmes
the House vote Monday "was the product of a larger failure—of political leadership in Washington. ..." On the op-ed page,
"this generation of political leaders" to FDR and finds "they have failed utterly and catastrophically to project any sense of authority. ..."
These are all really smart folks, but this time, I think, they have it, as my mother would say, completely bassackwards.
What we have today is a failure of followership.
Americans don't follow like they used to. Every institution that once had "authority" has lost followers over the last two generations. Mainline church denominations have been losing membership since 1965. So have the old clubs and civic groups. Newspaper readership penetration peaked in 1965 and has been declining ever since. Are people fleeing newspapers because a lack of "leadership," Mr. Know-It-All Editorial Page?
People aren't following anymore. And not just in the United States. University of Michigan political scientist Ron Inglehart has been polling worldwide since the 1970s. (See his World Values Survey
.) What Inglehart finds is that people in richer countries are less "elite-directed" and are increasingly engaged in "elite-challenging" activities.
People don't follow. They express.
They don't go to Democratic Club meetings, like the ones held around my hometown of Louisville. They certainly don't wait around to be told what to think by a "leader." They petition or boycott.
People don't read the boring old newspaper. They blog.
"We are witnessing a downward trend in trust in government and confidence in leaders across most industrial societies," Inglehart wrote in 1997. (Yes, that was a decade before Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House.)
The generation that emerged in the second half of the 20th century lost faith in every vestige of hierarchical authority, from the edicts of Catholic bishops to degrees in Free Masonry to the speeches given by governors and senators. (Ask people in business what it's like to "lead" Gen Y workers. Talk about a group of nonfollowers.) Editorialist and reporters write about the "collective breakdown of leadership" as if an entire generation of Americans were born without the skills of a Sam Rayburn, Dwight Eisenhower, or LBJ. There are just as many leaders as there have ever been.
What's missing are old-fashioned followers.
And, you know what? If we're waiting around for leaders to get us out of our messes, we're going to be waiting for some time. Because followers make good leaders, and followers are gone for good.
Thirty Years and Three Reasons Congress Imploded
When leaders of the House looked around for a consensus to confront what they were convinced was a national emergency, consensus had left the room.
There are plenty of stories about yesterday's tactical failings. But Monday's partisan collapse was also a product of at least three changes that have been taking place quietly for the past 30 years. All were underlying reasons for yesterday's disarray.
Reason No. 1: The Middle Has Gone Missing
Here's a chart compiled from vote tallies in Congress collected by political scientist Keith Poole (and others; here's their site ). You can see that a sizable portion of Congress fell into the ideological middle from the end of World War II until sometime in the mid- to late-1970s. Then those who fell into the category of "moderate" began disappearing.
By 2005, only a smidgen of Congress could be described as moderate. By the time of the 110th Congress, Poole writes, "There is no overlap of the two political parties. They are completely separated ideologically."
In Congress, the time from 1948 until the late '60s "was the most bi-partisan period in the history of the modern Congress," according to a recent paper . Lots of moderates produced lots of bipartisanship. When House leaders over the weekend went looking for a middle place where they could build a bipartisan bill, there wasn't any middle to be found. There hadn't been a middle of any appreciable size for nearly 20 years.
Reason No. 2: Congressional Districts Have Grown Lopsided
Members of the House increasingly come from districts where one party or the other has an overwhelming advantage. Members of Congress don't have to be moderate because their constituency is overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic.
(Most journalists are convinced that gerrymandering is the prime cause of growing House district partisanship. It isn't. The evidence is pretty thick that districts are growing more lopsided because Americans are choosing to live among like-minded others, not because of legislative monkey business. Check out Alan Abramowitz's paper here . Keiko Ono comes to the same conclusion here . So does Bruce Oppenheimer at Vanderbilt, but there's no immediate link.)
Congressional districts have grown more partisan because of how Americans are moving and settling—because of
the big sort
. Many Americans now live in like-minded communities so isolated that they have little understanding (or sympathy) for those people and places with different opinions. Americans have become like the people of Babel, wrote congressional scholar Nelson Polsby. We live in the same place, but we speak different tongues. The trouble is, Polsby observed, "to undertake great public works it helps if everyone speaks the same language."
Members don't speak a common language because they represent communities that have been moving apart for the past three decades.
Reason No. 3: They Don't Live Here Anymore
Members of Congress used to live in the District of Columbia. They'd bring their spouses, and their kids would go to local schools. There was life outside the Capitol. Members would get together on weekends. They would meet at school plays, have drinks after work, eat breakfast on the weekends. Republican leader Robert Michel and Democrat Dan Rostenkowski would share a car on the drive back and forth between D.C. and Illinois.
Members don't live in Washington anymore. They fly in on Monday or Tuesday and are back in their districts as soon as the week's business is done. Now "the interaction that occurred over many decades between members, after hours ... and on weekends and with their spouses, simply does not occur anymore," said former Republican House member Vin Weber.
Members don't live in D.C. anymore because they are afraid to, and have been since at least 1990.
Rick Santorum, a young Pennsylvania conservative, ran against a seven-term incumbent that year. Santorum was losing to Doug Walgren until he started running a television commercial about the "strange" house the incumbent owned in Northern Virginia. It was "strange" because it wasn't in his district back in Pittsburgh but in "the wealthiest area of Virginia."
When Santorum unseated Walgren, the social life of Washington, D.C., changed. "Now you don't move your family to Washington," Weber told a conference at Princeton. "Now you live in sort of a dormitory with members of your own party." (After midterm losses in 2006, the homes of former Republican House members went up for sale at 129, 131, 132, 135, and 137 D St. Southeast. Talk about sorting!) The social glue created over coffee while sharing a Sunday newspaper is missing.
Congress works best when members have mixed relationships. If a person is simply an ideological opponent, it's easy to turn him into the enemy. But if your kids are in the same school play, that opponent is also a friend. Legislatures work most smoothly if they are slathered with some social grease.
Among some African peoples, it was against custom to marry within the tribe. Anthropologist Max Gluckman wrote about how these intertribe marriages created "cross-cutting" relationships among people. The marriage rules forced different tribes to interact, to know one another. Those mixed social ties reduced the chance of misunderstanding or war. The saying was, "They are our enemies; we marry them."
The simple need for mixed social relations is lost to Americans, who increasingly live in homogenous communities and attend like-minded churches.
It's apparently lost to Congress, too. We're living with the result.
So What If They Didn't Talk? The Differences Were Still Fundamental.
Just a few minutes into Friday's debate and Jim Lehrer was already exasperated. The moderator wanted McCain and Obama to talk to each other. (Did he expect the candidates to banter away the next 90 minutes like two buddies in a fishing boat?) And Lehrer was convinced McCain and Obama hadn't stated their "fundamental differences" in how the two approached the financial crisis.
The differences were pretty clear to me—and fundamental was the word. In the first few minutes of Friday's debate, John McCain and Barack Obama placed themselves on either side of a divide that has defined the country for more than a century—two worldviews that are today expressed in church, party, and neighborhood.
When Obama talked about the financial crisis, he said there was a demand for new social controls. McCain spoke about the need for individual responsibility.
Obama's described the financial situation as a failure of "we." The Wall Street debacle was the result of a "theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to the most, and somehow prosperity will trickle down." The collapse was caused by "an economic philosophy that says that regulation is always bad."
McCain lamented a society that had abandoned personal accountability. He said he would have fired the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. "We've got to start also holding people accountable, and we've got to reward people who succeed," said McCain. The Republican looked at the collapse of Wall Street and saw an "I" problem.
In the late 19th century, American Protestantism split. The division wasn't denominational. It was about how people viewed the world. On one side was what University of Chicago religious scholar Martin Marty called "Private Protestantism." Private Protestants promoted personal salvation and promised that individual morality would be rewarded in the next life.
On the other side was "Public Protestantism," a conviction that the way to God required the transformation of society.
Private Protestants thought drunkenness was an individual failing that could be cured by faith. Public Protestants saw alcoholism as a social ill that should be addressed by "blue laws." Public Protestants confronted the new industrial age with the eight-hour day, child labor laws, and the minimum wage. Private Protestant preacher Dwight Moody witnessed the Haymarket labor riot in 1886 and concluded that either "these people are to be evangelized or the leaven of communism and infidelity will assume such enormous proportions that it will break out in a reign of terror such as this country has never known."
There were "two types of Christianity" in the country, Congregationalist minister Josiah Strong wrote in 1913. The competing views were "not to be distinguished by any of the old lines of doctrinal or denominational cleavage," Strong continued. "Their difference is one of spirit, aim, point of view, comprehensiveness. The one is individualist; the other is social."
The one staged revivals to save souls. The other pushed social reforms to save the world.
Private Protestantism guided the fundamentalist/evangelical church and, eventually, the Republican Party. It's expressed in
, Goldwater, Ayn Rand, the nondenominational church, Reagan, Cato and Heritage, right-to-work, school vouchers, Social Security privatization, the Great Commission, conceal and carry, free trade and the market.
Public Protestantism drove the ecumenical movement of the mainline churches and, in time, the Democratic Party. It was
, the New Deal and Great Society, the Ford Foundation, Medicare, the National Council of Churches, OSHA and the labor union.
This election was supposed to be about post-partisanship, but it's not even post-19th century. It's a contest between two worldviews that have been struggling against each other in sanctuary and voting booth for more than a century.
Why No One Trusts the Government to Fix Anything Anymore
Over the past few decades, Congress hasn't done a very good job of solving problems. (Congressional scholar Nelson Polsby once described Congress as being in a 30-year period of stalemate.) Now we expect these guys to rejigger the world's financial system six weeks before a presidential election? Holy smokes!
If we step back, we might be able to see why Congress has been so unproductive over the past 30 years -- and why Americans will undoubtedly be skeptical of whatever solution comes out over the next few days.
We don't trust government. Republicans, Democrats, or Ron-Paulians, none of us trusts government to do what's best, and we haven't for some time now.
In the late 1950s, eight out of 10 Americans said they could trust government to do the right thing most of the time. That level of faith in government remained high through 1964 and provided the foundation for LBJ's Great Society. In 1965, Johnson was able to pass the Voting Rights Act and Medicare (with the support of half the Republicans in the Senate). He created the Appalachian Regional Commission and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. The first class of children enrolled in Head Start.
That's what a president and Congress could do when voters trusted government.
Beginning in the mid-'60s, however, there was a "virtual explosion in anti-government feelings," wrote Seymour Martin Lipset and William Schneider. (Yep, CNN's Bill Schneider began life as a top-notch academic.) The decline in trust was "among the largest ever recorded in opinion surveys," one scholar wrote, and within a few years only one out of four Americans trusted government to do the right thing. Democrats lost the 1966 midterm elections, the Great Society was kaput, and Congress' dormant period had begun.
The decline in trust in government has been permanent, and it has permanently changed the terms of national debate. Vanderbilt political scientist Marc Hetherington argues that the decline of trust put Democrats at a perpetual disadvantage. Democrats found themselves proposing government solutions to problems that not even Democrats trusted government to carry out.
(Hetherington found the perfect example of the Democrats' dilemma: In 1964, only 41 percent of Americans wanted the federal government to integrate schools. Although sentiment for integrated schools was nearly universal by the early 1990s, support for federal intervention had dropped to 34 percent.)
As trust declined, the reach of government shortened. Americans found it harder to reach a consensus. Johnson and Bill Clinton were two poor boys from the rural South. The first planned the Great Society; 30 years later, the other declared that the "era of big government is over." The difference, Hetherington contends, is that in the early 1960s, people trusted government in its ambitions.
By 1995, most of those answering a
poll said they opposed more federal spending to help the poor. Some people had an ideological objection. Most didn't. Most people were against more Great Society-type programs because "the federal government (could) not do the job right."
By the 1990s, Americans didn't trust government to do much of anything at all.
Journalists have blamed this "crisis in confidence" on a "crisis in competence." Who could expect a public to trust a government that had brought us Vietnam, Watergate, WMDs, and, now, a multibillion-dollar financial implosion? Government got what it deserved.
The trouble with that argument is that it ignores the scope of the problem. At the same time Americans lost confidence in their government, so did the English. And the Aussies, French, Italians, Japanese, and Germans. The decline in confidence wasn't something special to the United States, a homegrown product of our politicians' failures. It was common to all industrialized countries. The lack of trust is a function of modern prosperity.
So, we've muddled along, putting off problems (health care, immigration, whatever). We've made it through, patching together solutions and spackling over the gaps with Game Boys, wine-tastings, and the wonders of HDTV. Mostly, we've looked for private solutions to public problems.
Now we need government again. We can't do without it. But we've forgotten what it was like to trust government to take on exactly the kind of big job it was created to do.
Colorado Is Importing Democrats
Colorado is turning purple because of migration.
There have been other, longer explanations for why traditionally Republican Colorado is in play this election. Real Clear Politics has all the numbers. Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker has a good article on the ascendance of Democratic politicians in the state. Christopher Beam does the same fine job of parsing the politics of the state on Slate .
But migration tells a better story.
Colorado hasn't become what Stuart Rothenberg calls the most important state in November because of what politicians have or have not done or because of a new array of issues. Colorado has been trending Democratic because the people who have moved there largely come from Democratic counties in other states.
Colorado has imported Democrats.
Bob Cushing tracked the flow of people in and out of Colorado from 1981 to 2005 using migration data collected by the federal government. Some Colorado counties had a lot of flux in their populations. Others were relatively stable.
Cushing divided the state's 63 counties into three even groups based on migration. (OK, Colorado has 64 counties, but Broomfield is relatively new.) The 21 counties with the highest percentage of new population were the most Democratic in the 2004 election. They voted two percentage points more Democratic than the state as a whole. (These were the densely populated counties around Denver and Boulder.)
The middle group was eight percentage points more Republican than the Colorado average. And the last group of counties—those whose populations have been least affected by out-of-towners—voted 15 points more Republican than the state average.
The larger the number of newcomers in a Colorado county, the more Democratic that county voted in 2004.
This change has been taking place slowly, just like migration. But examined over a generation, the politics of the migration have shifted dramatically. The vote for the presidential elections from 1992 to 2004 in these 21 counties was 19 percentage points more Democratic than in the period from 1976 through 1988.
The in-between counties have grown 10 percentage points more Democratic.
The 23 Colorado counties least affected by the outside world have grown one percentage point more Republican.
And, yes, as expected, the people moving into the counties growing most Democratic come from counties that voted blue in presidential elections. The county outside of Colorado that sent the most people to the state over the last generation was deeply Democratic: Los Angeles.
When people move, they sort by political preference. It's happening all over the country. The new people moving into Northern Virginia are turning that area Democratic. Meanwhile, the county clerk in Crook County in rural central Oregon said that eight out of 10 people who registered with a party there since 1995 have been Republican.
Every four years there's a presidential election. But Americans vote with their feet every day.
In Politics, It's Not What They Say; It's What You Hear
All the back and forth about the truth or untruth of the latest campaign ad misses what’s really happening. It's not what people say that matters in today's politics. It's what people hear.
Voters go out of their way not to hear what upsets their existing beliefs. Fewer and fewer Republicans listened to the State of the Union addresses during the Clinton years. With Bush in office, Democrats have avoided the annual rite.
We listen selectively so that we hear what we want to hear. University of Kansas professor Diana Carlin has studied how Americans watch presidential debates. She found we rarely listen to help us make up our minds. We gather with like-minded others, and we listen to confirm our pre-existing beliefs. We don't look for enlightenment, only for confirmation.
This isn't exactly a new discovery. Francis Bacon wrote in Novum Organum (1620) that the "human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it." When Paul Lazarsfeld studied Erie County, Ohio, during the 1940 presidential election, he found that voters "somehow contrive to select out of the passing stream of stimuli those by which they are more inclined to be persuaded. ... So it is that the more they read and listen, the more convinced they become of the rightness of their own position."
This has nothing to do with ideology. Politics isn't about ideology. It's about joining a team, and we judge fairness as partisans. In 1951, Princeton and Dartmouth students watched a film of a football game and were asked to take note of foul play. Princeton stalwarts saw all the penalties that should have been called on the Dartmouth players. Dartmouth students were convinced the refs missed clips and offsides committed by the Princeton players.
We judge politics the same way—as team members, not truth-seekers. Last week the Washington Post reported on a slew of experiments showing that political misinformation feeds people's pre-existing beliefs. In one study, in fact, contrary information served to reinforce existing beliefs, not shake them. Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler gave Bush supporters a report showing that Iraq did not have WMDs at the time of the invasion. This information only increased Republicans' belief that Iraq had hidden or destroyed the weapons just before the attacks began. Hearing contrary information tends to reinforce existing beliefs, not shake them. (Their full paper is here .)
Paul Lazarsfeld in 1940 observed that Americans were preoccupied with the need for free and open avenues of discussion. A restricted flow of information wasn't democracy's most serious threat, Lazarsfeld wrote. A bigger impediment to democratic debate was having too many citizens who had already decided how they would vote. Because, Lazarsfeld noted, "we find that consumers of ideas, if they have made a decision on the issue, themselves erect high tariff walls against alien notions." What was the point of a presidential campaign if nobody was listening—if few people were able to hear what the other side was saying?
The political scientist was disturbed that half of Erie County's residents had picked their candidate soon after the parties' summer conventions. He felt that such a large number already committed to a candidate threatened to make a campaign pointless. That was 1940. In 2008, 90 percent of voters say they have already decided how they'll vote in November.
Rural Voters in Battleground States Love Palin, Back McCain
Rural voters in battleground states support John McCain by about the same percentage that they backed George Bush at this point in the 2004 election. In September 2004, Bush held a 13-point lead over John Kerry among rural voters in battleground states. This September, McCain holds a 10-point lead over Sen. Barack Obama.
Despite wars in two countries and a worldwide financial collapse, the 2008 election is static, locked in the divisions, rhetoric, and tactics of 2000 and 2004. The divide between rural and urban voters was among the most dramatic signs of geographic partisanship in 2004. George Bush came out of the nation's cities running 3.7 million votes behind John Kerry. He won rural counties by 4.1 million and then padded his margin in exurbia.
The poll of rural voters is just a bit more evidence that the talk about change and mavericks and a new kind of post-partisan politics is more than overheated. Americans are settling quite naturally into the voting patterns of the past two presidential elections.
The poll surveyed likely voters last week in 13 closely contested states. (They are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.) Greenberg Quinlan Rosner interviewed 742 likely voters living in rural communities. The poll was commissioned by the Center for Rural Strategies , a nonpartisan rural-advocacy group in Whitesburg, Ky. (As editor of the Daily Yonder , I am an employee of Rural Strategies.)
Greenberg Quinlan Rosner works exclusively for Democratic candidates. Bill Greener, a Republican strategist, helped shape the poll. The full poll can be found here .
Rural voters were clearly enamored with the selection of Gov. Sarah Palin for the Republican ticket, even if they were less certain she was ready to take over the presidency. More than half said the choice of the Alaskan governor made them more likely to vote for McCain. Thirty-one percent said they were less likely to vote for McCain because of Palin.
Rural voters liked Gov. Palin personally more than they were impressed by her qualifications. Some 65 percent of those polled said the Alaskan "represents the values of rural communities." Fewer, 54 percent, said she was "ready to be vice president and assume the presidency if need be."
Rural voters have warmed considerably to McCain since the spring. When asked who would do a "better job" on a range of issues, rural voters were increasingly likely to name McCain.
For example, in May rural voters thought Obama would do a better job than McCain on the nation's economy by a 44 percent to 36 percent margin. In this poll, however, rural voters now say McCain would do better with the economy by a 46 percent to 43 percent margin.
In September, Obama held a 10-point edge over McCain on the question of who would do a better job of "bringing the right kind of change." Now the two candidates are tied.
McCain moved up on every question—who is "on your side," who shares your values, who would do better in Iraq—while Obama lost ground or stayed the same since the May survey.
Fifty-three percent of those polled said their neighbors and their communities were "ready for a black president." Twenty-four percent said their neighbors and the people of their communities were not ready for a black president. A quite large number, 23 percent, answered this question by saying they didn't know, refused to answer, or that neither option was appropriate.
The poll was taken during the economic turmoil of last week, and rural voters named the "economy and jobs" as the most pressing issues facing them. When asked to compare the importance of the economy and values, 61 percent of those polled said the economy was the "most important thing" in the election. Only 36 percent said it was most important that the next president "reflects my values."
Pollster Anna Greenberg said she was surprised McCain's lead wasn't larger. She said the sample in this poll was slightly more Republican than the rural poll taken in May. And although rural voters were seeing McCain more favorably, that was not translating into decisions to vote for the Republican.
Republican Greener interpreted the poll as more evidence that Democrats have been unable to cross the cultural division that has been defined by the geography of rural and urban America. "When Sen. Obama says that people living in small towns cling to their guns and religion due to bitterness, or his supporters attack Gov. Palin for not being qualified to serve by making light of her background as the mayor of a small city, this all contributes to separating the Democrats from voters in rural areas," Greener said.
Democrats have told themselves that they were able to win U.S. Senate seats in Montana, Missouri, and Virginia in 2006 because they put up candidates who could attract votes in rural areas. (Missouri's Claire McCaskill, Virginia's Jim Webb, and Jon Tester from Montana were nicknamed the "redneck caucus.") When you look at the county-by-county results, however, these races were won because Democrats increased their turnout in the cities.
Obama has been hustling in rural places, but this poll shows that over the past four months, rural voters in swing states have not moved his way. They have, however, found more to like in John McCain.
George Bush won in 2004 because he was able to turn out voters in rural and exurban communities. The tactical question this year may be whether Obama can pull the same trick in the cities.
Will Rural Voters Make It Three in a Row for Republicans?
Rural and exurban voters made George Bush president—twice.
You can see that in the chart below. It simply counts the vote in rural, exurban, and urban counties and subtracts the John Kerry totals from the Bush totals. Kerry won the nation's metro areas by about 3.7 million votes. He lost rural counties by more than 4.1 million.
Kerry won nearly 52 percent in urban areas, where 73 percent of the voters lived in 2004. The Democrat failed to crack 40 percent in rural and exurban counties, which had 27 percent of the vote.
The same was true in 2000. Gore won the cities. He lost the countryside.
And that is why Barack Obama is spending quality time in places like Lebanon, Va. , and Grand Junction, Colo .
We'll know better Monday morning how rural voters are sizing up this election when we report the findings of a poll from 13 battleground states. At this point in the 2004 campaign, Bush was up over Kerry by 13 points in rural areas. Stay tuned here for this year's comparison.
Thirty years ago, there was no Republican advantage in rural America. In fact, the average population of a county that voted Democratic in the 1976 election (for Jimmy Carter) was slightly smaller than the average Republican county. Over the next two generations, however, people made choices about how and where they wanted to live. We sorted. Some people gravitated to cities. Others moved to where there was a bit more space. The two political parties came to represent people who had a kind of lifestyle that was represented in where they lived.
By the time this century rolled around, the differences were astounding. Political scientist Michael Harrington compared blue and red counties by their population density. In 2000, Gore counties, on average, had 739 people per square mile. In 2004, Kerry counties had 836 people per square mile. Bush counties averaged 108 people per square mile in 2000 and 110 four years later.
Again, we don't think people who voted Democratic moved to cities to be around other Democrats. There are some people who enjoy an urban lifestyle, and those ways of life line up with Democratic presidential candidates. People who headed the other direction tended to vote Republican.
At a party of Republicans in the exurban town of Savage, outside Minneapolis, a man talked to me about the "places you go [in the city] where there are a lot of gray, pasty-faced people. I like it here." One of Bush's campaign leaders in the county told me, "A lot of us are fed up with the urban lifestyle. I would not want to see my grandchildren raised in downtown Minneapolis in an environment that is different from the one out here. I want to split my own wood and be less dependent on government."
There you are. Two Americas, defined by the size of government, population density, and wood-splitting. And that difference is determining presidential elections.
"It is hard to overstate the historical significance of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections," writes Seth McKee , a young political scientist who has done the most work on the rural vote. "Despite the decline in the rural percentage of the American electorate, the rural vote has become more important because it is so decidedly Republican. Never before has the gap in presidential vote choice of rural and urban voters been so wide."
In May, we conducted a poll of rural voters in 13 battleground states. John McCain led Obama by 9 points. (McCain and Hillary Clinton were tied.) In May 2004, George Bush led John Kerry by 9 points. (These rural polls are conducted by the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, with help from Republican consultant Bill Greener.)
Four years ago in September, George Bush was leading by 13 points with this key group. Monday, we'll have new results.
What Are The Politics Here? You Can Tell By Lookin'
On a call-in radio show in Minneapolis in midsummer, I talked about how people had sorted themselves into politically like-minded communities. Within an hour, three people came up with the same clue that told them they were living in a neighborhood where they didn't belong politically.
They noticed their neighbors used lawn chemicals.
OK, it was a public-radio show, so the callers were of the non-Roundup persuasion. But what struck me was the way people understood their political surroundings. Analysts talk about demographics. Voters, however, know that the way to tell the political makeup of a neighborhood has nothing to do with age, sex, income, or education. Much more telling is what people fling on their yards.
(Oh, one of the three callers was African-American. She said she also knew she didn't fit in when she noticed that there were no other black folks in the neighborhood. But her No. 1 clue was the chemicals.)
When Bob Cushing and I first proposed in The Big Sort that people were moving to be around others like themselves and that this process was gradually segregating the country politically, there was a certain amount of scoffing. How in the world could people know the political makeup of a neighborhood before they lived there? Were we saying that people were looking up precinct voting records before signing the mortgage papers?
In the intervening years I've learned that quite a few people do look up voting records. But most of us are pretty good at scoping out a neighborhood, reading the entrails of architecture, hairstyle, and signage that tell us a place is safe for our kind of people. It's a kind of cultural literacy that most of us practice without thinking.
How difficult is it to know the political leanings of a place? It's not hard at all, and to prove it, here's a little test. Below are 10 photos. Can you match these pictures with these places and their votes in 2004? (OK, it might be hard to get the right place with the right photo, but I bet you don't mix up the politics.) The answers are below.
[ A ]
[ B ]
[ C ]
[ D ]
[ E ]
[ F ]
[ G ]
[ H ]
[ I ]
[ J ]
[ K ]
A. My neighborhood, Austin, Texas; 80 percent Democratic.
B. Edina, Minn.; voted Democratic for the first time in 2004.
C. Fayette County, East Texas; 73 percent Republican.
D. Lewiston, Idaho (Nez Perce County); 63 percent Republican.
E. Portland, Ore. (Multnomah County); 73 percent Democratic.
F. Scott County, Minn.(suburban Minneapolis) 60 percent Republican.
G. My neighborhood, Austin, Texas; 80 percent Democratic.
H. Harlan County, Kentucky ; 61 percent Republican.
I. Texas Hill Country; 78 percent Republican.
J. My neighborhood, Austin, Texas (and one block from where Molly Ivins lived); 80 percent Democratic.
K. Austin, Texas (Travis County); 57 percent Democratic.