Big Sort
Where you live, how you vote.

Sept. 17 2008 8:18 AM

Sex Ed—an Oldie and a Goodie, With Meaning

Seeing the McCain campaign's advertisement claiming Obama voted to teach sex education to kindergarteners was like flipping across the radio dial and stopping on a great oldies station. Sex ed in the schools? Gosh, we haven't heard that one in a while.

The set-piece wisdom in politics is that, in general-election campaigns, candidates must run to the middle. They have to move away from their more ideological supporters in order to scoop up all those independent voters lurking in the ideological center.

But part of the big sort has been a decrease in these independent voters over the past 30 years. Moreover, there's good evidence that general-election voters are no less partisan or ideological than primary voters—and that candidates who moderate their tone risk alienating their supporters.

The Bush campaign in 2004 was the first to realize these generation-long trends. They looked at their polls in January of that year and saw that nobody was left in the middle. (Hey, how many truly undecided voters do you know?) At that point, they switched from a campaign aimed at convincing independents to one geared at turning out supporters. What the McCain sex-ed ad tells me is that the Republicans think they can win this thing by moving away from the middle. No need to compromise. Just fire up those supporters and party like it's 2004.

Sex education is an oldie but a goodie because it's about so much more than sex or education. Some of the earliest coalitions in the conservative movement were formed around schoolbook fights. In Orange County, California, anti-U.N.ers found common cause with evangelicals and small-government libertarians in late-'60s battles over what books should be used in the public schools. Sex education and books were a proxy for a constellation of beliefs that were defining modern-day conservatism.

Maybe we can see this phenomenon more clearly if we take a trip back to 1974 and the great Kanawha County, W.Va., schoolbook war.

In the spring of that year, the local school board introduced a new set of  "multicultural" texts. There had been a dispute about sex education in the Kanawha schools a year or two earlier, and one of the leaders of that protest had been elected to the board. She began to talk against the books, saying they violated "traditional Christian and American values." Parents met. Then they protested. By the end of summer, they were holding mass marches in Charleston. And when school started, parents kept their children out of the classrooms. By the fall, much of the state's coal-mining industry was shut down as union miners went on strike over the books. Things got out of hand. One minister prayed publicly for the deaths of three school board members. Shots were fired at a school bus, somebody dynamited a school, and several folks went to jail.

Ten years after the strike ended, a graduate student interviewed a large group of West Virginia's schoolbook warriors. Don Goode found that pro- and anti-schoolbook advocates disagreed not just about schools but about everything.

Pro-book advocates believed in government and thought that perhaps taxes should be raised. They supported the Supreme Court's ruling that prayer be banned from schools. They thought schools should serve hot meals to poor kids and provide day care. Pro-book West Virginians went to mainline churches (Methodist and Episcopalian) and lived mostly in the city of Charleston.

Anti-book activists told Goode they disagreed with the Supreme Court's prayer decision. They thought government was too big, that tax money was wasted, and that schools shouldn't try to take the place of families. They lived in the rural areas of Kanawha County and worshipped at nondenominational churches like the Two-Mile Mountain Mission Church and the Open Door Apostolic Church.

Goode also asked the West Virginians what values they thought were most important. Those who thought the new textbooks were OK ranked a "world of beauty in nature and the arts" quite high on Goode's list of 18 values. They agreed that having a "saved, eternal life" was least important.

Those who opposed the books ranked eternal salvation first.

Talk about your two Americas ...

McCain's advertisement wasn't about sex education. It was telling people McCain adhered to a matrix of beliefs that has defined conservatives for two generations. The sex-ed ad said the candidate would maintain traditional authority, build a strong military, and appoint conservative judges to the courts. In one 30-second ad, the Republican could send a message about faith, foreign policy, the size of government, and taxes. The political message was that McCain believes he can win without expanding the party, compromising, or promising some dreamy post-partisan future.

These boys are hunkering down. And the only people who misunderstood what McCain meant were those who thought the ad had something to do with a bill Barack Obama supported in the Illinois state senate.

Sept. 16 2008 8:39 AM

Elections Change, but Geography Remains the Same

Americans aren't moving to be around others who agree about single-payer health plans or the proper response to a nuclear Iran. We seek out comfort among people who live like we do, think like we do, act like we do. On Election Day, we tend to vote like our neighbors, and so it looks like we have sorted ourselves intentionally into Republican and Democratic enclaves, but those divisions are more about lifestyle than policy.

That's why the primary race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was just as geographically polarized as the contest between John Kerry and George Bush. In 2004, half the voters in that very close election lived in a county where either Kerry or Bush won by more than 20 percentage points. In the dead-even 2008 primary, exactly half the voters lived in counties where Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton won by a landslide.

Democrats in '08 were evenly split along the same geographic lines as those that evenly split Republicans and Democrats in 2004. The better George Bush did in a county, the more votes Hillary Clinton won. The map of voting results by county in Missouri from the 2004 general election looks exactly like the map from the 2008 Democratic primary. Obama won the Kerry counties; Clinton and Bush won the rest.

 The race between ideological opposites in 2004 had the same geographic divisions as the race between Obama and Clinton, who are ideological twins.

When this phenomenon was first discovered early in the primary season, there was a brief behind-the-scenes debate. The Clinton people thought this was proof that their candidate would be able to pull Republican votes in the fall. The Obama camp dismissed the comparison. You can't extrapolate primary results to the general election, they said. Two different kettles of fish.

The Clinton people looked at these results and began to change the campaign's itineraries. For the next several months, Bill Clinton spent most of his afternoons speaking from the back of a pick-up parked in the courthouse square of some red county. Obama, meanwhile, rolled up big leads in the cities. (He won the southern metro areas by the same margins that Hillary Clinton took Appalachia, though we didn't hear much complaining or surprise about those lopsided victories.)

The primary ended with the Democratic Party just as divided as the nation was in '04 and in exactly the same way.

Sen. Obama is stuck. He didn't find a way across the boundaries of lifestyle and culture that split Democrats. And now it's the middle of September, and he still is trying to find a way to bring these very different Americas together. (It might be that there isn't one.)

John McCain may have come to another conclusion: that he doesn't need to widen his net and can win by turning out the same voters who elected Bush. More on that shortly.

Sept. 15 2008 9:56 AM

2008 Is Now a Big Sort Election

Five thousand Mormons have moved out of downtown Salt Lake City in the last five years. They haven't left the SLC metro area, according to a July story in the Salt Lake Tribune . They've left the city. The Mormon population is "shifting north, south and west" out of Salt Lake City, wrote Peggy Fletcher Stack. And as Mormons move to the suburbs, "downtown Salt Lake City has grown more religiously diverse—and often more attractive to outsiders."

Mormon families who have exited downtown SLC have clustered. Eight out of 10 residents from one of these developments are Mormon, according to Stack. "There are 28 children under 12 within nine houses on our cul de sac," one Mormon mother, an urban refugee, told the reporter. "We are all stay-at-home moms and all Mormons. It's great."

Mormons load up house and hound in Mayflower trucks and U-Hauls and move out to developments with uplifting names like Daybreak and Bountiful. A more "diverse" group takes their place downtown. Over time, the city grows more liberal—the last two SLC mayors have been left-leaning Dems—and the suburbs become more Republican.

Welcome to the big sort—the social, cultural and economic phenomenon that has now taken the reins of the 2008 election and steered it back into the (depressing and divisive) pattern of 2000 and 2004.

Most U.S. communities have grown increasingly Republican or Democratic over the past 30 years. The numbers are clear-cut. Bob Cushing (the stats powerhouse in this operation) studied voting patterns at the county level in presidential elections since 1948. He found that since 1976, the trend has been for Republicans and Democrats to grow more geographically segregated. In the contest between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, about a quarter of voters lived in a county where a candidate won by more than 20 percentage points.

The last five presidential elections have been closer than any comparable period in the last century. At the same time, an increasing number of communities have developed overwhelming, and stable, local majorities. In 1992, Cushing found, 37.7 percent of American voters lived in counties where the margin was greater than 20 points. By 2000, it was 45.3 percent. The 2004 vote between John Kerry and George Bush was one of the closest in history nationally, but where people lived, the election wasn't close at all. In six out of 10 U.S. counties, the margin (for one party or the other) was 20 percentage points or more. And nearly half of all voters lived in a community where the local results were a landslide.

Bob Cushing and I thought that a good deal of this political segregation was created by migration. The entire country was sorting—in the same way Salt Lake City was sorting. If this were true, Cushing figured a community that tipped Republican or Democratic would keep tipping as it collected more like-minded residents.

That's exactly what he found. Once counties grew solidly Democratic or Republican, the local margins would increase in presidential votes. One half of U.S. voters live in counties that have remained unchanged in their presidential preference since 1980; 60 percent live in counties that haven't changed since 1988; and nearly 73 percent live in counties that haven't changed since 1992.

One early objection to our findings was that people didn't check local voting records before they moved. That is largely true. People didn't want neighbors who had the same opinion about single-payer health plans. They wanted to be around people who lived like they did. Who thought the way they thought. Who had the same kind of lifestyle.

And these days, lifestyle predicts political party.

When asked to explain how people choose a political party, Donald Green at Yale described two social events. Imagine you are walking down a hall, Green said. There are two doors leading to two different social gatherings. You look in at both, and then you ask yourself some questions. "Which one is filled with people that you most closely identify with?" Green asked. "Which ones would you like to have your sons and daughters marry?" You don't pick your party by position paper. You get a vibe. You pick the group with your kind of people. And you join—and, most likely, you join for life.

That's the way we've chosen where and how we live. Opposites don't attract. Psychologists know that people seek out others like themselves for marriage and friendship. That the same phenomenon could be taking place between people and communities isn't all that surprising to social psychologists. "Mobility enables the sociological equivalent of 'assortative mating,' " social psychologist David Myers explained. At the same time, the social insularity created in these increasingly homogenous communities, churches, and clubs reinforces political partisanship. We hear and believe what our group hears and believes. Dissent is squelched, extremism is rewarded and allegiance to the group is enforced.

So, despite all promises and predictions of a new kind of post-partisan politics, this election has been jimmied back into the pattern of 2000 and '04. Really, who should be surprised? Elections are a reflection of how and where we live.