The Two Americas: Urban Versus Rural


Four years ago I did a post on this topic. The Two Americas: Urban Versus Rural (the links were corrupted in the blog transition).

Jonathan Rodden recently wrote at the Washington Post‘s The Monkey Cage, This map will change how you think about American voters — especially small-town, heartland white voters:

broken-united-statesIn perhaps the most painful gaffe of his 2008 campaign, speaking to a group of donors in San Francisco, President Obama offered an infamous description of voters in postindustrial small towns in Pennsylvania and the Midwest: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

President Obama was drawing on a common wisdom that had been making the rounds among pundits from David Brooks on the right to Thomas Frank on the left. According to this narrative, the frustration of Americans living in postindustrial heartland towns led them to ignore their economic interests and embrace the cultural conservatism offered by the GOP.

This narrative started with the stark red and blue maps of counties and congressional districts that began to appear every other November since 2000. The maps seemed to reveal “two Americas.” Blue America, according to David Brooks, was located “around big cities on the coasts,” while people in Red America “tend to live on farms or in small towns or small cities far away from the coasts.”

This understanding of the Democrats as the party of metropolitan America and the Republicans as the party of smaller postindustrial cities and towns is deeply ingrained in the American political discourse, and has shaped many analyses of the upcoming presidential election.

It is also completely wrong.

Whaaa? Bobo Brooks is completely wrong? Who coulda guessed.

Despite his name, race and untoward comments about small-town America, Obama went on to win large majorities in exactly the small, overwhelmingly white postindustrial cities and towns that, according to mythology, are populated with Republicans.

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Obama’s vote share in Scranton a few months later was well above 70 percent — not much different from his vote share in San Francisco.

As can be seen in the map below, Scranton was not a fluke. Obama also won similar majorities in all of Pennsylvania’s medium-sized industrial agglomerations, including Allentown, Bethlehem, Reading, Lancaster and York. He won smaller industrial towns such as Hazelton, Bloomsburg, Johnstown, Uniontown and Washington, just to name a few. In fact, it is difficult to find a Pennsylvania town with a substantial industrial history where Obama did not win a decisive majority.

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[Obama] went on to win Terre Haute by a majority approaching 70 percent. Again, Terre Haute is not unusual. The list of small Indiana towns with roots in early 19th-century industrialization is a list of Democratic strongholds: Anderson, Muncie, Richmond, Marion, Fort Wayne, Goshen, Kokomo and Evansville, to name only a few.

The maps reveal that the core downtown neighborhoods of industrial Indiana towns like Terre Haute are the same deep shade of blue as Indianapolis or Chicago.

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The same is true for the industrial towns of Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and well beyond. Along the shores of the Great Lakes, and along the places where rail lines or canals intersected and gave birth to industrial activity and towns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Democrats win majorities today that are as comfortable as their majorities in big cities.

In collaboration with some colleagues, I have assembled a Web map from precinct-level election data that allows users to zoom in and out, focus in on specific towns or neighborhoods and superimpose census data on income and race, allowing readers to examine their own favorite postindustrial towns.

One of the most striking lessons from exploring these maps is that the red nonmetropolitan counties on election-night maps are internally heterogeneous, but always following the same spatial pattern: Democrats are clustered in town centers, along Main Street, and near the courthouses schools, and municipal buildings where workers are often unionized. They live along the old railroad tracks from the 19th century and in the apartment buildings and small houses in proximity to the mills and factories where workers were unionized in an earlier era.

In the graphs above, using the same Indiana towns displayed in the maps above, I plot the Democratic vote share against the distance of each precinct from the town’s city hall. Within two or three miles of the town center in any direction, one finds strong — even overwhelming — Democratic majorities. Only as one moves away from Main Street and downtown does one begin to find majority-Republican precincts in the newer single-family houses on the edge of town.

Readers can use the Web map to zoom in on any of the Indiana or Pennsylvania towns mentioned above, or pick some postindustrial towns in Illinois, Michigan or Ohio, and see that these towns demonstrate the same pattern. Democrats dominate the 19th- and early 20th-century buildings around Main Street and give way to Republicans in the suburban single-family homes that were built decades later on the outskirts of town, often in proximity to the interstate and suburban-style shopping areas, and in the rural areas that lie beyond.

This pattern is strongest in the towns with the highest levels of early 20th-century industrialization and population growth, such as Terre Haute, Muncie and Fort Wayne, and somewhat weaker in less industrialized towns such as Marion, Ind.

In other words, the same political geography found in big cities is also on display in smaller postindustrial towns. There is a fascinating fractal-like relationship between population density — which is the upshot of early industrial activity — and Democratic voting. As one zooms in to lower and lower levels of geographic aggregation, the relationship only reappears in finer detail.

Just where did the myth of Republican-dominated industrial towns in the heartland come from? Part of the answer lies in the hopes of Republicans and the corresponding fears of Democrats that small towns in the Midwest will come to resemble many small towns in the Deep South, where elections have come to resemble racial head counts.

But perhaps more important, we have gazed for too long at election-night maps of counties or congressional districts that lacked sufficient granularity to differentiate between towns and their surrounding suburbs and rural peripheries. We also obsess over polls that lead us to assess categories like “low-education nonmetropolitan whites,” blinding us to the difference between deep-blue Johnstown, Pa., for instance, and the red county of Cambria in which it is located.

The distinction between industrial towns and their surrounding rural peripheries is especially important in the 2016 presidential election. The Republican presidential candidate has adopted a nativist, anti-trade platform that seems explicitly tailored not only to white rural voters — who have been voting reliably Republican for years — but also to white voters in postindustrial towns who have been voting overwhelmingly Democratic for decades.

Given his difficulties among educated voters — especially women — in large metropolitan areas, victory for the Republican candidate seems to require a major transformation of the maps displayed above, such that deep-blue industrial towns begin to resemble their Republican rural surroundings.

In other words, the best hope for the Republicans in the 2016 presidential election is that David Brooks was not so much wrong as prescient when describing a “red America” that includes the cities and towns of the heartland. Only time will tell, but this would require a rather extraordinary electoral transformation.

Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui at the New York Times‘ The Upshot add, Why Republicans Don’t Even Try to Win Cities Anymore:

Only three of the 25 largest cities in America now have Republican mayors. In the House of Representatives, Republicans from dense urban congressional districts have become extinct. In the 2012 presidential election, the counties containing Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Washington, San Francisco and Philadelphia each gave less than 20 percent of their vote to Mitt Romney. In this coming election, Donald J. Trump is unlikely to do better — and may fare worse.

Even as much else about this election feels unprecedented, America’s urban-rural divide will be as strong as ever, continuing a decadeslong process in which the two parties have sorted themselves ever more clearly by population density.

The Relationship Between Density and Voting

Over the last 60 years, the population density of a county has become a strong predictor of how residents vote in presidential elections.

The Realignment

The pattern highlights a paradox about Mr. Trump: “He’s the most urban candidate in American history — he was born in Queens and lives in a skyscraper on Fifth Avenue,” said Aaron Renn, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. And Mr. Trump’s personal fortunes have risen with the comeback of major American cities, with signature real estate projects in New York, Washington and Chicago. But he has portrayed these same cities as dystopias.

Mr. Trump has elevated a strategy that is risky to the Republican Party in the long run. Not only have recent Republican candidates neglected cities, but they’ve also run against them, casting urban America as the foil to heartland voters. Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin caricatured coastal cities as unmoored from the “real America.” Ted Cruz derided “New York values,” as if those values, whichever ones he meant, were alien. Mr. Trump has pre-emptively annulled the votes of Chicago, St. Louis and Philadelphia, cities where he warns the election will be rigged against him.

“It’s unimaginably distressing, even by eight years ago, let alone 16 years ago,” said Stephen Goldsmith, a former Republican mayor of Indianapolis and an adviser to George W. Bush in the 2000 campaign. “We had an opportunity to reach broadly across the country to have an inspiring voice of opportunity, and there’s a set of coherent Republican policies that would amplify that opportunity. We’re doing the opposite. We’re insulting folks who could vote for us.”

The history of how the G.O.P. got here is partly about the ideological realignment of the two parties, and the disappearance of liberal Republicans like Jacob Javits, a senator from New York State, and John Lindsay, a mayor of New York City (a Republican who left the party, he said, when it left him). The party even moved away from conservative Republicans like Jack Kemp, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the George H.W. Bush administration, who spoke often about urban opportunity. But this history is also about the physical realignment of voters, as the rise of suburbia enabled Democrats and Republicans to move, literally, farther apart.

One Word: Race

In 1966, white voters in Chicago who’d long supported the city’s Democratic machine began to bolt for the Republican Party. They were alarmed by urban riots, by civil rights legislation in Congress and — much closer to home — by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign in Chicago that year for “open housing.”

Pamphlets soon began to appear on the stoops of the city’s middle-class bungalows: “Your Home is your castle — Keep it that way by Voting STRAIGHT REPUBLICAN.” This was the summer, the historian Rick Perlstein writes in his book “Nixonland,” when the party of Lincoln changed its mind.

Those newly converted Republicans in Chicago voted in 1968 for Richard Nixon. “But these were the people,” Mr. Perlstein said in an interview, “who largely would have left the city within 10 years.”

Those Chicago voters embody both trends — party realignment and white flight — that have remade political geography since then. In the 1950s, in presidential election results compiled by the Stanford political scientist Jonathan Rodden, a county’s population density was a poor predictor of how its residents voted. Today, the pattern is remarkably consistent: The denser the county, the more overwhelmingly its residents vote Democratic.

“This story could be written in one word,” Mr. Perlstein said of that historical arc. “The one word would be ‘race.’

In the early days of white flight, two federal policies — the construction of the interstate highway system and mortgage guarantees for the new suburbs — pulled whites out of cities even as they were getting pushed by racial tension, desegregation and school busing.

“The people who go to the suburbs are not a random selection,” said Jessica Trounstine, a political scientist at the University of California, Merced. They were the middle and upper class. They became homeowners. They prized neighborhoods of single-family houses. Those characteristics today all correlate with leaning Republican. “These population shifts happen for reasons that are external to politics,” Ms. Trounstine said, “but politics is embedded in who goes.”

Metropolitan areas with more highway construction became more polarized over time between Democratic cities and Republican suburbs, according to research by Clayton Nall, a Stanford political scientist. Where highways were built, they helped sort people. Where they led, suburbs became more reliably Republican. They created entirely new places, Mr. Nall argues, with new politics.

In the 1980s, after Mr. Reagan’s election, the link between population density and partisanship tightened further. Mr. Rodden suspects the battles over moral values helped drive the trend. Issues like abortion with urban-rural divides in public opinion further widened the gap between the two groups.

In many ways, it was becoming clearer over this time what each party stood for, whether on race or cultural cleavages or transportation or poverty. The basic party infrastructure Republicans would need to win in cities, at any level, disintegrated. Even the average congressional district held by Republicans today has a quarter of the population density it did in 1950.

As they have had less to say to cities, Republicans have come to talk, instead, about them.

“They have it in their interest to appeal to suburban voters who are looking back to the city through their rearview mirrors with a mix of disgust and romance for an imagined past,” said Thomas Sugrue, a New York University historian.

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Density Defines

The approaching election will look no different. Hillary Clinton’s strongest base of support — where adults surveyed by Gallup are most likely to say they hold favorable views of her — is in the densest counties. Mr. Trump fares the best in the sparsest places.

Beneath this election’s dark plotlines about temperament, party infighting and accusations of sexual assault, that underlying pattern bodes badly for the G.O.P.

“What happens if you abandon the places where most people live?” said Mr. Perlstein, the historian. After its 2012 defeat, the Republican Party wrung its hands over the need to face demographic change in a country that’s becoming majority-minority. But geography poses a problem, too: Once-white suburbs are growing more diverse; poverty is spreading there; and central cities that Republicans relinquished are now the country’s economic engines.

The anti-city strategy holds up today only because Democrats, with their tight clusters of urban support, are at a structural disadvantage in Congress.

“One of the most important implications of all this is that ignoring cities can be a winning strategy in House races,” Mr. Rodden said. “The mix of positions that the Republicans have taken has served them really well in winning the House. But it’s not working out so well in presidential elections.”

The seemingly cynical solution is to count on low turnout among urban voters. The alternative is to compete for them.

“If you compete in cities, you don’t have to win in them,” said Thomas Ogorzalek, a political scientist at Northwestern. “If you go 70-30 in Chicago, instead of 90-10 like Trump is going to do, you can win Illinois. That’s not a bad strategy.”

Mr. Goldsmith, the former Republican mayor of Indianapolis, says the idea isn’t far-fetched.

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The question, though, is what Republicans would lose if they tried. What if they didn’t evoke urban iniquity to excite exurban voters, or if they toned down the values overtures that play well in Utah?

Electoral necessity will demand at least a new round of Republican soul searching.

We’ll have to wait and see about that.


  1. We are lucky as conservatives to have the liberal left giving us the answers to all our problems on the right. Jonathan Rodden may be spot on with his findings, but he spends as much time gloating as he does discussing the data. My OPINION is that if the Republican continues on it’s path, and your predictions come true, then I don’t understand why democrats worry about it. If the GOP destroys itself there are a couple of things that could happen. One or more parties could form to replace the GOP. The GOP could pick itself up and reform. The democrats could become a victim of their own success and begin falling apart as they did a few years ago. Or all hell could break loose and we could have a bigger crisis than we ever imagined.

    If you want to do an interesting analysis, find out where the people who join the Armed Forces come from. I have seen such analyses and they bear a marked resemblance to the micro-maps Jonathan Rodden was using to show the divide in our culture. (Hint: democrat heavy areas do not produce many recruits.)

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