electoral geography

New Zealand’s Striking Electoral Shift to the Right

The conservative National Party of New Zealand scored a major victory in the country’s October 2023 general election, with the governing Labour Party suffering a historic defeat. As described by The Guardian, “New Zealand voters have delivered a forceful rejection of the Labour government as a surge in support for the National party delivered what analysts described as a ‘bloodbath, for the government and a new right-leaning era for politics in the country.” But just three years earlier, it was Labour in the victory circle, winning the 2020 election so overwhelmingly that it was able to govern without a coalition partner. But in the intervening period, the country’s mood soured over concerns about high taxes, increasing crime, the rising cost of living (especially of housing), and the government’s highly restrictive COVID policies.

Before delving into geographical analysis of New Zealand’s recent elections, it is necessary to explain the complexities of the county’s “mixed-member proportional” parliamentary system. New Zealand is divided into 65 general “electorates” (geographical voting constituencies) and then redivided into seven special electorates for Māori voters. Each electorate selects one person to serve as its MP (Member of Parliament) in the unicameral parliament, officially known as the New Zealand House of Representatives. But Kiwi voters not only choose an individual to represent their electorate, but also vote a second time for a political party, each of which maintains a list of potential MPs. Parties whose total vote in that contest exceeds a certain threshold (usually five percent) send an additional 48* MPs into the House of Representatives, their numbers proportional to their share of the vote. Minor parties can thus gain parliamentary representation either by having enough voters concentrated in one or more electorate to defeat candidates from the other parties, or by having enough support nationwide to crack the five-percent threshold.

Labour’s overwhelming triumph in the 2020 election is strikingly evident on the map of the “party list vote,” which is on the left side of the paired Wikipedia maps posted below. Astoundingly, the Labour-list came in first place in all but one general electorate. Its rival center-right National Party took only a single district, located in a suburban area of Auckland. The direct electorate results were much more balanced, with individual candidates in the National Party taking seats in both non-metropolitan areas and in the more affluent parts of Auckland (see the map on the right). Three other parties – the Green Party, the Maori Party, and the “classical liberal” ACT Party – also sent MPs to parliament in 2020, based both on their national party-list vote and on their victories in individual electorates. All in all, 2020 was a banner year for New Zealand’s political left, with Labour, the Green Party, and the Maori party (Te Pāti Māori) together holding 78 parliamentary seats, as opposed to 42 held by the center-right National and ACT parties.

On October 14, 2023, however, New Zealand experienced a stunning electoral reversal. As the party-list vote maps for the two elections show, New Zealand went from almost entirely red (Labour) to almost entirely blue (National Party). Even on the more diverse Wikipedia map of the direct electorate results, there is little red to be seen in the country as a whole. But such mapping is misleading; as the inset maps show, the Labour and Green parties won quite a few urban seats, particularly in the country’s second and third largest cities, Christchurch and Wellington. But overall, the 2023 election was a clear triumph for conservatives. It was also a rout for Labour, which went from 62 to 34 seats in the House of Representatives. But the other left-leaning parties, the Greens and the Māori Party, gained seats. So too did the classically liberal ACT Party. The socially conservative nationalist-populist New Zealand First Party also did relatively well, returning to the House of Representatives after an absence of several years.

As conventional electoral maps give undue prominence to sparsely inhabited areas, and therefore tend to visually exaggerate the vote-share of conservative parties, electoral cartographers have devised more representative maps. The usual strategy is to expand more densely populated areas in proportion to their populations. For New Zealand’s 2023 election, The Spinoff devised such a map, converting the country into hexagons of roughly equal population. It also grouped the parties into two categories, one left-leaning and the other right-leaning. As can be seen in the resulting map, in the 2023 election New Zealand was still a mostly blue (conservative-voting) country, although not to the extent seen in conventional maps. This Spinoff map also clearly shows the Māori population, with its special electorates, as strongly supporting the political left.

The Spinoff has drafted another map that divides New Zealand’s electoral hexagons into three categories, one composed of large cities (Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch), one of medium-sized cities, and one of rural areas. Such mapping helps us see the role of population density in voting behavior. To clarify this situation, I have “whited-out” non-rural areas on one iteration of this map, everything but large cities on another, and everything but medium-sized cities on a third. As can be seen, rural electorates supported the conservative National Party, although some by relatively thin margins. Medium-sized cities delivered more mixed results, with some strongly favoring the National Party and others supporting Labour. Dunedin, in southeastern South Island, in particular leans left. Such affiliation is strongest in North Dunedin; as “Just Dave” comments in a Quora query about New Zealand’s most left-wing cities:

The cities in which the most left-wing party that actually gets elected to Parliament (the Greens) receives the largest proportion of the popular vote in the are central Wellington, central Auckland and north Dunedin. All three areas have a comparatively young, wealthy and educated population. North Dunedin is primarily home to university students and university staff, for example.

Surprisingly, New Zealand’s large cities also appear as politically mixed on The Spinoff’s 2023 electoral map. To be sure, Wellington – the capital – is mostly red (Labour) and green (Green), but it is a different story in Christchurch and especially Auckland. Auckland, by far the largest metropolitan area in the country, deserves a more detailed analysis – which it will receive in the next GeoCurrents post.

*This number can be slightly higher due to extenuating circumstances.

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Montana’s Changing Electoral Geography

Although Montana has usually opted for Republican candidates in U.S. presidential elections, it was until recently something of a “purple” state, often dividing its votes relatively evenly between the two main political parties. As can be seen in the map series on the left, it has been trending in a decidedly red direction. In 2008, Barack Obama received 47 percent of Montana’s votes; in 2016, Hillary Clinton got only 35.7 percent.

As can be seen on these maps, Montana’s patterns of electoral geography have changed as well. The first two maps (1948 and 1960) show a north/south divide, with the south favoring Republicans and the north favoring Democrats. Many counties, however, were almost evenly split, with few experiencing landslide elections. These patterns disappear in the later maps. The north/south divide is now only vaguely evident, and landslide elections are common, at least in the Republican-voting east. Several counties have switched their party alignment. Cascade (Great Falls) formerly trended blue, but is is now reliably red. As the second map show, Cascade County even saw a minor red-shift from 2016 to 2020 (moving from a  57.1 % to a 58.46 % Trump vote). Gallatin County (Bozeman) has moved in the opposite direction. As recently as 2004, Gallatin voted Republican. It is now reliable blue – and getting bluer. It remains, however, Montana’s most libertarian county.





County-level maps of the Trump and Biden vote in 2020 reveal some interesting but subtle patterns. At the crudest level, the state’s main geographical divide now separates the east from the west. Although most western counties are still solidly red, several of the more populous ones are blue. Equally notable, no western county gave more than three-quarters of its votes to Trump. The statistical website 538 thus maps Montana’s western congressional district as leaning Republican, in contrast its solidly Republican eastern district. Twelve eastern counties gave more than 80 percent of their votes to Trump. But Biden did win two eastern counties and came very close in a third. As we shall see in tomorrow’s post, all three of these counties have Native American majorities.



The main electoral geographical divide in the United States now pits metropolitan areas against small towns and rural areas. This pattern, however, is only vaguely apparent in Montana’s county-level data. As can be seen in the paired maps, the most sparsely settled counties gave the highest percentage of their votes to Trump, and several relatively densely populated western counties supported Biden. But Montana’s population leader, Yellowstone County (Billings), solidly backed Trump, and several rural counties that are demographically dominated by Native Americans voted for Biden.



Montana’s rural/urban divide is more clearly evident at the precinct level. Consider Silver Bow County, which is politically consolidated with the city of Butte. Historically, Silver Bow was Montana’s bluest county, its many miners consistently supporting Democratic candidates. Today, the mines are largely shuttered, and the city now specializes in reclaiming toxic sites. It is still blue, although not to the extent that it formerly was. As can be seen, central Butte remains dark blue, whereas most of the outlying areas of Silver Bow County are red. The electoral maps of Billings, Helena, and Livingston all show blue urban cores surrounded by red rural hinterlands. Even the small town of Havre on the Great Plains, population 9,362, had one light blue precinct in 2020. On the other side of the ledger, two of Montana’s largest cities, Great Falls and Kalispell, had no blue precincts in 2020. But they are not as red as their surrounding areas.




A few rural areas and small towns in Montana that are not on native American reservations now habitually vote for Democratic candidates. The college towns of Bozeman and Missoula are both surrounded by rural blue precincts, although they are not as blue as those in the urban cores. Several remote towns and rural areas situated in areas with abundant natural amenities are distinctly blue. Big Sky, noted for its luxury ski resort, falls into this category, as do the small towns of Gardiner and Cooke City, adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. Red Lodge, also near Yellowstone and adjacent to the spectacular Beartooth Highway, falls into the same category. Near Glacier National Park one finds the small blue towns of West Glacier and Whitefish. Nearby Columbia Falls, however, is decidedly red. This difference reflects demographic sorting tendencies: Whitefish became an early center of outdoor recreation and environmentalism, which in turn attracted newcomers with similar interests and values. As Bill Bishop argued in The Big Sort more than a decade ago, Americans are increasingly moving to places that that match their political orientations.

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The Political Regions of Europe and the Fallacy of Environmental Determinism

Europe Political Orientation MapGeoCurrents reader Rafael Ferrero-Aprato recently brought to my attention an interesting map of political divisions in Europe made by the Dutch electoral geographer Josse de Voogd and reproduced by The Economist in 2014. Josse de Voogd notes the difficulties and limitations in making a map of this sort: “Some countries [are covered] in much greater detail than others and there are lots of political parties that are difficult to place ideologically. The information comes from a wide range of resources over a long time-span.” In general terms, the map seems reasonably accurate. But at the more local scale, the situation often gets too complex to be easily captured in a map of this sort. As Rafael Ferrero-Aprato notes in regard to his own country, Portugal:

Speaking for Portugal though, the red corresponds to the strongly leftists regions of Alentejo/South Ribatejo (because of the latifundium agricultural system) and Setúbal Peninsula (an industrial region). It includes also the moderately leftist areas of the north Algarve, lower Beira Interior and Lisbon. So far, so good.

But after giving it more attention, the borders are not perfect: they include south Algarve (moderately right-wing) and the city of Porto, despite it being considered right-wing. Some leftist “enclaves” are missing too, such as the peninsula of Peniche (industrial fishing) and the city of Marinha Grande (industrial).

The Alentejo, Setúbal Peninsula, Peniche and Marinha Grande were also areas of strong influence of the Portuguese Communist Party during the 1926-74 dictatorships, the only force that remained organized in the face of strong repression by the regime. As such, these regions saw numerous revolts during that time.

Germany Electoral Maps 1The only country that seems to be misconstrued on the map—at least for recent elections—is Germany. As the set of maps from Electoral Geography 2.0 indicates, German elections have recently been structured largely Germany Electoral Maps 2around a north/south division, especially those of 1998, 2002, and 2005. The 1994 and 1987 (West Germany only) maps fit better with de Voogd’s depiction, although it does seem that he unduly minimizes the left-wing Ruhr industrial area.

European right-wing populism mapUnfortunately, the interpretation of de Voogd’s cartography by The Economist is not particularly enlightening. Much of the attention here focuses on environmental determinism, referring both to the map discussed above and to another map made by de Voogd, posted here to the left. As the noted in The Economist article:

Flat areas are more right wing The flat pains of southern Sweden, East Anglia, north-eastern France, Flanders and Padania vote for right-wing populists. Hilly regions like Cumbria, south-west France and most of the Alps tend to stick with the mainstream parties. This observation is not as facetious as it may seem. According to Garry Tregidga, an historian at Exeter University, hilly pastoral areas are generally characterised by left-leaning politics. One debatable explanation is that flat crop-growing areas benefit most from economies of scale, so fathers traditionally passed on their land to the first born, reinforcing differences in wealth and creating a more hierarchical political culture. In hilly, pastoral areas inheritances were more commonly split equally, which over the generations created a more egalitarian social structure and political tradition. Another (equally debatable) explanation is that arable farms need cheap vegetable-pickers and that the consequent foreign immigration into otherwise homogeneous rural areas stokes right-wing sentiment.

Europe physical mapThe Economist author simply gets the physical geography of Europe wrong. Upper Saxony in Germany and Provence in France are correctly depicted as right-wing populist strongholds, yet they are hardly flat areas. And as the “dominant political force” map indicates, many “flat” areas generally vote for the left. Examples here include southwestern France (Aquitaine is not “hilly,” despite what The Economist claims), the lowlands of Scotland, the Brandenburg region of Germany, the plains of Andalucía, and the lower Danube Valley. And what of upland area such as the Alps, the Carpathians, the Pindus, and the Cantabrian Mountains that are accurately depicted as more “rightist” in their voting patterns? As a comparison of de Voogd’s basic political map with a physical map of Europe shows, there is simply no pan-European correlation between topography and political viewpoints.

Like most geographers, I am often perplexed by the hold that environmental determinism retains on the public imagination. Actual evidence is rarely able to dislodge such fallacies. Evidently there is something deep comfortable about the idea that landforms and climate determine how we think.

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Minnesota and Northern California: Political Twins or Political Opposites?

CA and MN elections compared mapTwo U.S. states that largely bucked the Republican trend in the 2014 election were Minnesota and California, which count among the “bluest” states in the union. Since 1976, only Minnesota has supported the Democratic candidate in every presidential election. California has more recently entered the Democratic fold, having voted for a Republican presidential candidate as recently as 1988, but in recent years it has been a reliably blue state. In the 2014 election, California gave a higher percentage of its vote (59) to the Democratic gubernatorial candidate than any other state. In Minnesota, by contrast, the winning Democrat received only 50 percent of the vote, as opposed to the 44.5 percent received by his Republican opponent. Minnesota also elected a primarily Republican delegation to its state House of Representatives (72 Republicans to 62 Democrats) in 2014, whereas the incoming lower house of California’s state legislature has a 52 to 28 Democratic edge. California thus currently stands as the “bluer” or these two blue states, a standing also reflected in the 2012 Presidential election, in which Barack Obama took 60 percent of California’s vote as opposed to 53 percent of Minnesota’s.

Minnesota Voting and Popuation Density MapBut if California and Minnesota are both Democratic bastions, their actual patterns of electoral geography are quite distinctive. To illustrate these differences, I have prepared several maps contrasting the 2014 election results in Minnesota with those in northern California. I have focused on northern California rather than the state as a whole for three reasons. First, northern California (as I have defined it here) and Minnesota are of roughly equal size, making cartographic comparison relatively simple. Second, several southern Californian counties are so large, in both area and population, that they undermine simple comparisons using county-level maps. Third, the geographical contrast with Minnesota that I want to emphasize is more pronounced in regard to northern California than to southern California.

Northern California Voting and Population Density MapThe major difference in voting behavior between Minnesota and northern California centers on population density and proximity to major metropolitan areas. In both places, counties containing large cities strongly supported candidates from the Democratic Party. That, however, is where the similarity ends. In northern California, the suburban counties that ring San Francisco Bay also voted for democratic candidates, and many of them did so quite heavily. Northern California’s inner suburbs tend to be deep blue, while the outer suburbs and exurban fringe are at least light blue. Contrastingly, in Minnesota the outer suburban belt that surrounds the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul tends to vote for Republican candidates, often quite strongly. Indeed, one of the most conservative members of Congress, Michelle Bachmann, represents the northern suburbs of “the cities.” Bachmann did not run in 2014, but her Republican successor easily coasted to victory.

The contrast between the Minnesota and northern California also extends to rural counties. In northern California, largely rural counties tend to vote for Republican candidates. The main exception is the north coast, where lightly populated Mendocino and Humboldt counties are noted for their strong counter-cultural elements (they form the bulk of the so-called Emerald Triangle of widespread Cannabis cultivation). In contrast, many rural Minnesota counties still generally vote for Democrats, as is clearly evident on the map of the 2014 U.S. Senate election. This pattern holds both for agricultural counties in the west and south and for the mining/logging region of the northeast (which also includes the minor industrial/port city of Duluth). On the map of U.S. House of Representative delegations, California thus exhibits something of a classical “core/periphery” pattern (with a blue “core” and a red periphery), whereas in Minnesota one finds instead a core/semi-periphery/periphery pattern (with blue yielding to red and then to blue again as one leaves the metropolitan center).

1060 Minnesota N. California election mapMinnesota’s electoral pattern is the older of the two. Consider, for example, the 1960 presidential election, in which the Democrat, Jack Kennedy, narrowly beat the Republican, Richard Nixon. In the 1960 presidential contest in California, Kennedy won San Francisco as well as the (at the time) industrial East Bay counties of Alameda and Contra Costa, yet lost the suburban West Bay counties (Marin, San Mateo). Kennedy also took a majority of northern California’s rural counties, especially those in the sparsely populated far north. But by the end of the 20th century, northern California’s electoral geography had shifted, with the rural counties trending strongly Republican and the suburban counties trending clearly Democratic. The same transformation occurred in the northeastern U.S. states. In the south and much of the Midwest, however, suburban countries have stayed Republican, while White-majority rural areas have either remained or switched into the Republican camp. Minnesota is unusual in that many of its White-dominated rural counties continue to vote for Democrats. The 1960 presidential and the 2014 gubernatorial maps of Minnesota show remarkably similar patterns. One difference between them is a shift to more Democratic voting in the mostly rural southeastern corner of the state. Hennepin County, which contains Minneapolis, has also, much less surprisingly, moved in the same direction. Contrastingly, Republican voting has intensified in the countries that encircle the Twin Cities.

Minnesota 1960 2014 Election MapMinnesota’s distinctive voting behavior might be linked in part to its distinctive left-leaning political party: its state-level affiliate of the United States Democratic Party is actually the Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party (DFL), which was created in 1944 by a merger of the populist, democratic-socialist Farmer-Labor Party with the Democratic Party. This legacy may be responsible for some of the DFL’s continuing clout in rural areas. Additional factors, however, are no doubt also in play.

Minnesota 2014 State House MapAcross the United States, White-dominated rural counties have been gradually moving into the Republican category. This process has played out at different times in different places. Much of Appalachia has only recently made this transition, which has turned West Virginia from a solidly blue to a solidly red state over the past 20 years. The one part of the country in which many White-dominated rural counties still tend to support Democrats is the Upper Mississippi region, anchored by Minnesota but also including parts of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Will these areas as well turn red in coming elections? Even in Minnesota, the Republican Party is gaining ground in such places, as can be seen in the map of Minnesota’s State House of Representatives 2014 election. And in the 2014 senatorial election in neighboring Iowa, this pattern was much more pronounced, as will be examined in the next GeoCurrents post.


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The Republican Postmodern Turn, Silicon Valley, and California’s Political Transformation

The New York Times map of county-level changes in the U.S. presidential vote from 2008 to 2012 shows almost every county in California shifting red in the Republican direction. In most counties, the change was minor. Barack Obama still took California by almost 60 percent of the vote, a figure exceeded (among states) only by Hawaii (70.6%), Vermont (67%), Rhode Island (62.7%), New York (63.6%), Maryland (61.7%), and Massachusetts (60.8%). And in the California legislative contests, the Democratic Party triumphed handily, and is now poised to gain supermajorities in both the assembly and senate. California, it would seem, is turning into a one-party state.

As can be seen in the paired maps posted to the left, Mitt Romney took several counties in interior Californian that John McCain lost in 2008. The 2008 election, however, was an unusual contest, as the country was in the midst of an economic meltdown. Better comparisons are the elections of 2000 and 2004. As is evident in the maps posted here, Obama gained substantial ground over both John Kerry and Al Gore, winning a number of counties in Southern California and in the Central Valley that had not given a majority of their votes to a Democrat for decades.*

Southern California especially has seen a political transformation over the past few election cycles. In the 2012 election, only Orange and Riverside counties supported Republican Romney, yet as recently as 1988, only one county—Los Angeles—supported Democrat Michel Dukakis. Strikingly evident is the transition of gigantic San Bernardino County from red to the blue. This change is not quite as dramatic as it appears on the map; Obama’s margin was narrow, and the vast majority of the county’s two million inhabitants are clustered in its southwestern corner, with the rest of the county remaining right-wing. Still, southwestern San Bernardino County is part of the so-called Inland Empire, a relatively conservative corner of the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area that has been particularly hard-hit by the foreclosure crisis. Despite the hardships of the past four years, San Bernardino County continues to support Obama. As is true in many other parts of Southern California, a growing Hispanic population is helping push the county leftward.

The greater San Francisco Bay Area in northern California underwent its own political transformation two decades earlier. In the 1950s, the region was solidly Republican; at that time, the electoral geography of California was almost the reverse of what it is today (as is generally true for the United States as a whole). In the Bay Area, the watershed election was 1988. Four years earlier, Ronald Reagan lost only San Francisco, Marin, Alameda, and Santa Cruz counties, but by 1988, Napa alone remained in the Republican camp. By 1992, the entire Bay Area had shifted to the Democratic column. Since then, the Democratic margin of victory has only continued to grow. Consider Santa Clara, the home county of GeoCurrents. In 1984 Democrat Walter Mondale received a mere 43.6 percent of its votes; by 1996, Bill Clinton got 56.9 percent, and in 2008 Obama reached 69.45 percent. In 2012, Obama edged up to 69.51 percent, making Santa Clara one of only three California counties to experience a blue shift from 2008 to 2012.

Santa Clara is a significant and unusual county in several respects. With 1.8 million inhabitants, it is the 16th most populous county in the United States (out of 3,141), with more residents than twelve U.S. states. It is also the 19th richest county by median household income. It is demographically diverse, with a substantial Hispanic population (27 percent) and one of the largest Asian-American communities in the U.S. (32 percent). Most importantly, Santa Clara County is at the core of the American high tech industry; in most regionalization schemes, Santa Clara is synonymous with Silicon Valley.

The economic and demographic characteristics of Santa Clara County are of considerable significance in regard to its recent Democratic surge. Consider population characteristics first. The chief reaction among Republican pundits to their electoral debacle last week has focused on demographic factors, noting that the fast-growing Hispanic population was alienated by nativist rhetoric and policies. On November 6, 71 percent of the nation’s Hispanic voters cast their ballots for Obama. Asian voters rejected Romney by an even larger margin. As less than half of Santa Clara’s population is White, the demographic argument about a changing United States seems to hold. It is highly misleading, however, to lump Asian Americans with Hispanics. The recent voting histories of the two groups are highly dissimilar. As recently at 1992, Asian Americans formed a heavily Republican-voting group; over the past 20 years, they have turned away from the party in droves.** Also countering the demographic thesis is the youth vote. In the U.S. as a whole, voters between 18 and 29 gave only 36 per cent of their votes to Romney. Although I have yet to find figures for California’s countries, there is every reason to believe that this pattern would be if anything more marked in Silicon Valley. In the high tech world, young Republicans are scarce indeed.

Republican commentators and strategists also framed their defeat in economic terms, contrasting a productive Republican business class with a dependent Democratic counterpart. Conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly baldly contends that “[T]here are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff, they want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.” Romney himself infamously suggested that the poorer half of the country—the 47 percent, in his memorable formulation—would automatically vote for Obama in expectation of enhanced governmental benefits. Such an analysis is not entirely devoid of sense; had the electorate been restricted to the wealthier half of the population, Romney would have won. But class is not everything, and complex class coalitions constitute both sides of the American political divide. Romney gained vast numbers of votes from the “47 percent” that he disparaged; according to the New York Times, 35 percent of voters in families making less than $30,000 a year opted for the Republican on the ballot. By the same token, Obama enjoyed considerable support among the affluent, chosen by 44 percent of those with family incomes greater than $200,000. Such deviations from class-based expectations reflect both non-economic issues and the fact that not everyone votes according to his or her own economic self-interest, much less his of her immediate self interest. Even billionaire Warren Buffett has been known to urge higher taxes on billionaires, whether from a sense of noblesse oblige or out of a belief that a higher tax rate could reduce the deficit, bolster business confidence, enhance the long-term potential for economic expansion, and thus allow his own fortune to grow more vigorously.

From the perspective of Santa Clara County, the idea that the Republican debacle stems from a desire among the economically disenfranchised to gain greater governmental benefits simply does not wash. If Obama received seven out of ten votes in Silicon Valley, it was not due to local support for socialist redistribution. The Silicon Valley ethos is steeped in entrepreneurial capitalism. Not only are corporate magnates held up as folk heroes, but so too are venture capitalists, angels to some. Young tech-savvy workers flock to the Valley, enduring outrageously expensive housing in hopes that extraordinarily hard work, punctuated with intense bursts of creativity, will be rewarded with fat stock options. College students plan start-ups in their down rooms. Public schools push their students harder year-by-year. Hard work and business, in short, is what Silicon Valley is all about. Yet in every election, the local Republican vote diminishes a bit more. That is a fact that must be explained.***

Silicon Valley leaders are by no means perfectly satisfied with the economic policies of the current administration, and one hears grumbling from the rank-and-file as well. A more business-friendly orientation would be welcome, as would immigration reform that would open the door to affluent newcomers with technical talents. But a large array of Republican policies and attitudes has made the party unpalatable to most Santa Clara residents. While gay rights and abortion matter, so does science. In the high-tech world, unwavering support for the scientific approach is axiomatic. Those who regard climate change as a conspiracy, or who advocate teaching creationism in the public schools, find little support here. Yet over the past two election cycles, such anti-science viewpoints seem to have captured the core constituency of the Republican Party. Emblematic of this mind-set was the refusal by party leaders and pundits, and evidently by Mitt Romney himself, to give any credit to scientific polls, much less to the Bayesian analysis of those polls by Nate Silver, who showed Barack Obama with a clear lead on election eve.

It is in this context that Romney’s “47 percent” comment becomes particularly weighty. As the video made clear, Romney was not arguing that he had no chance of a winning a majority of the votes cast by those who pay no federal income tax, most likely a correct but trite observation. Rather, he was contending that he had no chance of gaining any votes among that sector and hence saw no point in contending for them. As it turned out, Romney took something on the order of 40 percent of the votes of the poorest 47 percent of the population. Surely Romney himself, as well as every potential donor in the room, would have realized the absurdity of his claim had they given it any reflection. But no objections were brooked, and the statement seems to have been passively accepted as embodying a degree of political wisdom. How could this be?

The fact that the 47-percent comment seems to have gone over well in the room in which it was delivered has nothing to do with its counter-factual content, and everything to do with its signaling of ideological affiliation. In making the statement, Romney was attempting to establish his “severely conservative” credentials in a party that has grown actively hostile toward moderates. By echoing the sentiments of hard-right radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, Romney was distancing himself from his own past, and perhaps from his own beliefs.

But the disdain for reason behind this episode also reveals an ironic turn in the Republican core: a turn, effectively, toward radical postmodernism. When extreme postmodernists on the left began to argue in the 1980s that science is a conspiracy to justify the status quo and that “facts” are constructed to serve reactionary causes, conservative intellectuals were aghast, for good reason, arguing that this nonsensical movement threatened our intellectual heritage. Yet the party seems to have shifted 180 degrees, to the point where facts, reason, and science have come to be seen by many Republican stalwarts as partisan Democrat obstacles to American renewal. Such an attitude does not bode well for the future of the Republican Party. The question now is whether the voice of reason, represented by conservative thinkers like David Brooks and David Frum, will prevail, or whether the likes of Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh will continue to guide the party faithful. If the latter course triumphs, the Republican vote in Silicon Valley may well approach the vanishing point.

*Bill Clinton won some of these counties in 1992 and 1996 with less than 50 percent of the vote, due mostly to the strong third-party candidacy of Ross Perot.

** See the graphs published in the “review” section of the New York Times, Sunday November 11, 2012.

***Nor is Santa Clara County is unique in this regard. Across the country, the wealthiest and most economically productive areas tend to favor Democratic candidates. Of the ten top counties in the U.S. based on median household income, seven supported Barack Obama on November 6. The same pattern holds at the state level; of the ten wealthiest states as measured by median household income (2005-2007 average), nine voted for Obama. (The counties in question are: Louden, Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William, and Fauquier in Virginia; Howard and Montgomery in Maryland; Hunterdon County and Somerset in New Jersey; and Douglas in Colorado. Fauquier, Douglas, and Hunterdon voted for Romney.)


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Preliminary Observations on the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election

Several pundits have claimed that the second major victor in yesterday’s U.S. presidential election was statistician Nate Silver, who correctly picked the winner in every state, thereby seemingly demonstrating the power of Bayesian analysis—when done correctly. In scrutinizing Silver’s final pre-election map, I can find only a few minor instances in which was not fully on-target (Iowa, for example, was not as close as he had depicted it). In a Slate column, however, Daniel Engber claims that the real credit should go to the pollsters who generated the date that Silver used. Engber notes that Silver, unlike most pollsters, missed the Democratic victory in the Montana senatorial contest.

The New York Times website features some excellent cartographic work on the election. One innovative map shows the shift in voting patterns from the 2008 election at the country level. As can be clearly seen, in the majority of U.S. counties, Mitt Romney gained a larger share of the vote than Republican candidate John McCain had received in the previous election. The exceptions to this pattern are intriguing. Across much of the Deep South, overall a Republican stronghold, Barack Obama gained votes in 2012 over his 2008 showing. Many of these “blue-shifted” counties are heavily African-American, which may indicate a greater voter turnout among Blacks in this election; if this is indeed the case, such a change runs counter to most of the predictions made prior to this election. An alternative thesis is that a considerable number of evangelical Whites in these counties declined to vote, not wanting to endorse a Mormon candidate. Yet in most other parts of the country dominated by conservative Protestants, Romney outpolled McCain. Other areas that moved in the Democratic direction include much of New Jersey and New York, which may in part reflect the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Central Ohio, perhaps the most crucial battleground area in this election, also shows a distinct shift in the direction of the Democratic Party.

At the state level, the map of the 2012 election looks very much like that of 2008, with only Indiana and North Carolina switching back to the Republican candidate (provided that Florida stays within the Obama camp). More significant is the fact that this map is also strikingly similar the maps of the 2004 and 2000 elections. The only state-level difference between yesterday’s election and that of 2000 was the movement of a few closely contested swing states from the Republican to the Democratic candidate: Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and New Hampshire. I suspect that migration patterns are pushing a few of these states, especially Colorado and Virginia, into the Democratic camp. But otherwise, the basic electoral geography of the U.S. has shown little change over the past twelve years. Even at the county level, the differences are relatively modest. The coal-mining region of Appalachian has definitely turned to the Republicans Party over this period, as have a number of counties located elsewhere in the Upper South. At the same time, the Democratic Party has solidified its advantage in the coastal West and in the Northeast. In 2000, George W. Bush took thirteen coastal counties on the West, whereas in 2012, Romney won only six. And whereas Bush was the victor in fifteen counties in northern New England, in this election Romney took only four.

Although the geographical changes in U.S. presidential voting since 2000 have been minor, the situation is quite different if we look back to the 1996 election, as well as those preceding it. In 1996, Bill Clinton took the interior states of the Upper South as well as Louisiana. In the early twenty-first century, it would be highly unlikely that such states as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas would vote for a Democratic presidential candidate. In yesterday’s election, Obama received less than 40 percent of the vote in all three states, and in West Virginia, which was recently a Democratic stronghold, he barely got 35 percent. Obama did significantly better in such Deep South states as South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi, where the African-American population is much larger.

Only two states gave more than 70 percent of their votes to one candidate: Utah, where Romney got roughly 73 percent, and Hawaii, which went for Obama by 70.6 percent. Although the overall trend in U.S. politics is clearly one of increasing regional differentiation, most states are still more “purple” than “red” or “blue.” At the county level, however, it is a different story, as many localities in the Great Plains and the Inter-Mountain West went for Romney by well over 80 percent. In contrast, it is difficult to find any county that gave more than 80 percent of its votes to Obama. Holmes County in Mississippi, however, did go for Obama by 83.9 percent. Holmes County, not surprisingly, is mostly African-American, with only 20 percent of its population classified as White.

Preliminary Observations on the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election Read More »

The Urban/Rural Divide in Slovenia’s Recent Election

Several recent GeoNotes have emphasized the urban/rural divide in U.S. Republican presidential primary elections. The same pattern is evident elsewhere, and is illustrated in a particularly striking manner in the recent Slovenian Family Code Referendum. The new family law code, which had been passed by the Slovenian Parliament, extended the rights of same-sex couples and prohibited the corporal punishment of children. A conservative group called “Civil Initiative for the Family and the Rights of Children” opposed the law and collected enough signatures to force a referendum. In the resulting contest, the code was defeated, with 55 per cent of voters rejecting it.

The geographical patterns in the vote are clear. The new code was supported in almost all urban areas, and opposed in almost all rural districts. On the Electoral Geography 2.0 map posted here, I have added Slovenian’s largest cities to highlight the urban/rural divide. As can be seen, support for the measure was especially pronounced in Ljubljana, the capital city.  The only other tendency of note is the fact that voters along the southwestern border, an area heavily influenced by Italian culture, tended to support the measure more than those elsewhere in the country.

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Geographical Patterns in the Louisiana Republican Primary

The map of the Louisiana Republican presidential primary supplied by the Huffington Post last week revealed little of interest: Mitt Romney won Orleans Parish (encompassing New Orleans) decisively, and Rick Santorum took every other part of the state. A modified version of the map that shows Santorum’s margin of victory, however, reveals several other patterns. As can be seen, Santorum did not do quite as well in urban parishes as he did in rural ones, at least in the southern half of the state. His margin of victory was also somewhat lower than average in the rural parishes bordering the Mississippi River in the eastern part of the state.

As many commentators have noted, Santorum, a Roman Catholic, has done particularly well in areas dominated by evangelical Protestants. In the North and Midwest, Santorum have received more support from voters in this group than from Roman Catholics. In Louisiana, little difference is apparent between these two groups within the Republican electorate. As can been seen on these maps, the state’s striking division between its mostly Catholic south and its largely Protestant north was not reflected in this primary contest.

In the past, Louisiana’s religious divide was sometimes visible in election returns. The pattern was clearly evident in the general election of 1960s, in which John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, triumphed in the south but lost the north.


Geographical Patterns in the Louisiana Republican Primary Read More »

The Geography of the 2012 Illinois Republican Primary

The geographical patterns in the recent Republican presidential primary in Illinois are quite clear. As can be seen by comparing the two maps, Mitt Romney triumphed in most urban and suburban parts of the state, doing particularly well in the Chicago metropolitan area, whereas Rick Santorum did very well in rural counties, particularly in the southeastern part of the state, an area with a somewhat southern cultural background. Exceptions to this pattern include Rock Island County in the northwest, Madison County in the center-west, and Tazewell County to the south of Peoria, which are all relatively urban or suburban, yet voted for Santorum.

The Geography of the 2012 Illinois Republican Primary Read More »

Republican Primary Results by County

Yesterday’s GeoNote examined the recent Republican presidential primary in Alabama, stressing the divergent results in the state’s various regions. In both Alabama and neighboring Mississippi, each of the top three candidates took a significant number of counties. As the first map posted today shows, this has been a somewhat unusual pattern in this election season; in most states that have selected delegates to the Republican convention, one or two candidates took almost all counties.

This map also reveals the strength of the libertarian candidate Ron Paul in certain parts of the country. Paul has done quite well in rural countries in the west and far northeast. Although he narrowly lost Maine to Mitt Romney, Paul took a majority of Maine’s counties, several by more than fifty per cent of the vote.  Western Washington and northern Idaho have also given strong support to the libertarian challenger. Paul’s relatively strong showing in Virginia, on the other hand, stemmed largely from the fact that only he and Romney were on the ballot. His support in eastern Iowa is more difficult to explain.


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Geographical Patterns in the Alabama Primary Election

The recent Republican presidential primary in Alabama reveals some interesting geographical patterns. As the first two maps indicate, the so-called Establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, did well in the wealthier and more urban parts of the state. The one major exception here was Madison County in the far north, home of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, located near Huntsville. Surprisingly, relatively cosmopolitan Madison Country voted for Rick Santorum, the most socially conservative candidate.

The less urban and affluent countries of the state gave the majority of their votes either to Santorum or to Newt Gingrich. Here the best correlation is with race; countries with high percentages of African-Americans tended to vote for Gingrich. The actual voters in these counties were almost all White, as very few Black residents belong to the Republican Party. It has been suggested that White voters in such areas responded particularly well to Gingrich’s fierce denunciations of food stamps and other governmental welfare programs.

Geographical Patterns in the Alabama Primary Election Read More »

Region, Religion, and Redshirts in Thailand

Maps of Thailand’s 2007 legislative election clearly show that the pro-Thaksin redshirt movement currently threatening the government has regional as well as economic foundations. In Electoral District 3, which covers much of the northeastern Isan region, the Thaksin-affiliated PPP party received over 66 percent of the vote, while the anti-Thaksim Democrat party received less than 14 percent; in Electoral District 8, which covers southern Thailand, the PPP received only 8 percent of the vote, while the Democrats received almost 80 percent. Although southern Thailand is wealthier than the Isan region, it is largely agricultural and not particularly prosperous. The per capita GDP of Surat Thani, the largest province of the south, is less than half that of Thailand as a whole – and Surat Thani it is the second richest of the south’s 14 provinces.

Religion may have something to do with the south’s antipathy to the redshirts. Southern Thailand has a substantial Muslim population, and the Thaksin regime was noted for its harsh military approach to the long-simmering Islamic insurgency of the far south. But most of southern Thailand is actually dominated by Thai-speaking Buddhists; the Malay-speaking Muslim population is concentrated in the four southernmost provinces. Intriguingly, it was the Buddhist majority provinces of Electoral District 8 that voted most strongly for the anti-Thaksin Democrat Party.

Thailand’s Buddhist-Muslim divide may be playing into the current struggle in a different manner. Although Islam in Thailand is commonly associated with the Malay-speaking areas of the extreme south, a recent report issued by the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that more than 80 percent of the country’s Muslims live elsewhere. Many are Thai-speakers residing in the greater Bangkok area. Although official statistics maintain that fewer that five percent of Thailand’s people practice Islam, some observers think that the actual figure is much higher. Thai-speaking Muslims tend to be hostile to the redshirt movement, and correspondingly supportive of the ruling Democrat Party.

A recent report in the ethnic news site New America Media by Japanese investigative journalist Yoichi Shimatsu highlights a possible religio-economic dimension of the present conflict. Thailand’s Democrat Party, Shimatsu argues, “is increasingly reliant … on the ‘river Muslims’ of Bangkok,” a group that purportedly dominates informal commerce and smuggling along central Thailand’s numerous waterways. Shimatsu claims that these ethnic economic networks were targeted by former Prime Minister Thaksin as part of his “war on drugs” campaign. As a result, according to his report, the so-called River Muslims are now mobilizing against the Thaksin-inspired redshirt movement. Shimatsu warns that such a dynamic could provoke a massive Buddhist backlash: “Unless the elite yields its untenable privileges and accepts a secular democracy, populist Buddhist militancy will radically alter the political and demographic landscape. The Land of Smiles could soon become a vale of tears.”

Region, Religion, and Redshirts in Thailand Read More »

Language, Regionalism, and Political Protest in Thailand

“If the people of the NE want their independence from Thailand, I say go ahead. Go back to Laos, where your ancestors came from, and enjoy the life there.”

— “Pappa,” writing in the Bangkok Post discussion board, April 25, 2010.

“Pappa, you may want to do some more research about history of Thailand before you tell the people in Isaan to go back to Laos. The Siamese themselves are descendants of the Lao people that became mixed with the native Khmer and Mon of Southern Thailand.”

— “Mustang 67,” responding in the Bangkok Post discussion board, April 25, 2010

The massive protests currently threatening the government of Thailand are generally described in the U.S. press in terms of class dynamics. The red-shirt demonstrators, followers of the deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, are said to represent Thailand’s peasantry. Poor and politically marginalized farmers had benefitted from the economic and social security initiatives of the populist billionaire PM, and continue to rally fiercely to his cause. The yellow-shirt counter-protestors, in contrast, are portrayed as well-off members of the urban establishment, keen to maintain order and wary of any popular surge.

While such analysis captures much of what is significant in the current struggle, it misses a crucial geographical component. Most red-shirts hail from northern and especially northeastern Thailand. As a recent Bangkok Post article put it, “when Thais from other regions talk about Isan [i.e. northeastern] people, they dismiss them as ‘red all over’ – meaning Isan people are strong supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s Puea Thai Party.”

The Isan region is largely coterminous with the Khorat Plateau of northeastern Thailand, a low-lying sandstone platform noted for its thin and acidic soils, wet-season floods, and dry-season droughts. Considering its meager environment, Isan is densely settled; its twenty million people form roughly a third of Thailand’s population. Not surprisingly, it is the country’s poorest region. Lacking local opportunity, northeasterners often seek employment in prosperous central Thailand. Men typically work in construction; northeastern women are disproportionally represented in the sex business of Bangkok and Pattaya.

The idea that the redshirts should “go back to Laos” is rooted in the fact that the language of Isan is a dialect of Lao. Diet, music, and assorted cultural practices further link the people of Isan to neighboring Laos. Standard Thai-speakers from the core area of Thailand often look down on Lao culture as rustic and inadequately refined. The Isan people, proud of their own history, deeply resent such attitudes. Thailand’s Lao are hardly a minor outlier. Remarkably, the twenty million Lao-speakers in Thailand outnumber their counterparts in Laos four to one.

Lao and Standard Thai (which was once called Siamese) are themselves closely related languages of the Tai family, which originated in what is now Guangxi in southern China. Tai-speakers started moving into Southeast Asia roughly a thousand years ago, establishing small states and inter-marrying with – and borrowing culture from – local Khmer (Cambodian) and Mon peoples. By the 1400s, three sizable kingdoms had emerged: Ayutthaya (Siam) in what is now central Thailand, Lanna (Chiang Mai) in what is now northern Thailand, and Lan Xang (or Lan Sang) ranging from the Khorat Plateau into present-day Laos. All three were of mixed ethnicity, but they nurtured local dialects of Tai that eventually developed into three distinct languages. Siam, hooked into global trade networks, eventually grew strong enough to reduce Lanna and Lan Xang to vassalage. Unsuccessful Lao rebellions against intensifying Siamese rule in the early 1800s resulted in the forced relocation of Lao-speaking peasants into the western Khorat Plateau, further reinforcing the Lao majority in the area.

The kingdom of Siam came under pressure from French imperialism in the late 1800s. In response, Siamese monarchs modernized aggressively while playing the British off against the French. In 1893 and 1904, however, they were forced to cede lands in their northeastern periphery to France—the core of contemporary Laos. The French government wanted to annex the Khorat Plateau, but was unable to do so when Britain supported the Siamese cause. But Britain extracted a price: indirect British rule over a slice of Siamese territory on the Malay Peninsula.

In 1939, Siam’s fascist-influenced government renamed the country “Thailand” to help forge its different Tai-speaking peoples into a single nation. A concerted “Thaification” program followed, spreading Standard Thai (Siamese) through schools and government, discouraging the use of the Lanna and Lao scripts, and inculcating reverence for the Thai monarchy. The process was somewhat successful, as the people of northern and northeastern Thailand came to generally consider themselves members of the Thai nation. Certainly there is scant desire among the people of Isan to separate from Thailand and join Laos, a repressive county far more impoverished than the Khorat Plateau.

But if the people of northern and northeastern Thailand became Thai in the larger national sense, they did not thereby become Thai in the narrower cultural sense. The people of the area that was once Lan Xang not only maintain their cultural differentiation (see language map above), they also remain opposed to the country’s political establishment, based in central Thailand. Thaksin Shinawatra, a native son of Chiang Mai in the north, championed the non-Siamese Thai, and they have rallied to his cause—hence the strong correlation of language, history (political status in 1540), and electoral behavior shown in the maps above.

Language, Regionalism, and Political Protest in Thailand Read More »

Coke vs. Pepsi; Venezuela vs. Zulia

Although Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has been able to secure relatively high levels of electoral support, his campaigns have faltered in the northwest. In the Andean highland zone, closely linked to neighboring Colombia, the states of Táchira and Mérida both voted “no” on Chavez’s constitutional referendum in 2009. Anti-Chavez sentiments also run strong in the northwestern lowland state of Zulia, which brackets Lake Maracaibo. The heart of Venezuela’s oil industry, Zulia has deep connections with the United States. But even beyond economics, the culture of the Maracaibo region is at odds with that of the rest of the country.

The differences between the Maracuchos—the people of the Maracaibo lowlands—and other Venezuelans are considerable. Maracaibo speech is distinctive in intonation and especially in its use of “vos” for “you.” The region’s folk music—La Gaita Zuliana—is unique, and its coconut-heavy cuisine is unlike that found elsewhere in the country. Behavior differs as well. As Edward Teveris reports, “A question in the survey my company conducted a few years back asked: “Te consideras un ‘parandero’?” (“Do you consider yourself a ‘showoff’?” Meaning: lots of gold watches, necklaces, and other high machista behaviors.) The ‘Maracuchos’ responded at an alarmingly higher rate than the rest of the country. When we showed that slide to our clients they laughed in agreement.”

The Maracuchos seem to have embraced an oppositional culture so pronounced that it is even reflected in consumer choices. Brands that do well in Caracas and elsewhere in the country often fail in Zulia. While most Venezuelan smokers like Belmont cigarettes, the Astor Azul brand is preferred in Maracaibo; while Polar beer is favored elsewhere, regional brews are more popular in Zulia. Perhaps most tellingly, other Venezuelans drink Coca-Cola, but Maracuchos drink Pepsi. (See “A Psychographic Profiling of Venezuelan Consumers and Society,” by Jacobo Riquelme and Edward Teveris).

The same oppositional sensibility is also encountered in politics. It is thus not surprising that in 2008 leaders in Zulia proposed launching a campaign for autonomy, modeling their proposal on efforts made in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz region. Nor is it surprising that such designs met concerted opposition from pro-Chavez forces. As one local representative responded, “we [pro-Chavez government] legislators categorically reject this separatist, secessionist proposal of the state because it goes against our values and the integral development of the country,” adding that “We, with the law, with the People in the street, and with the armed forces, will put up a fight”(from “Autonomy Proposed in State Legislature of Venezuelan Oil State Zulia,” by James Suggett, http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/3423).

Coke vs. Pepsi; Venezuela vs. Zulia Read More »

The Geography of the Chilean Election

As last Friday’s post noted, recent elections in Chile and Bolivia produced markedly different results. In Bolivia, socialist president Evo Morales was reelected in a landslide, whereas in Chile the center-left coalition that had run the country for more than two decades lost power to the center-right. Although Chile’s out-going president Michelle Bachelet remained extremely popular, her coalition’s candidate, Eduardo Frei, was widely viewed as uninspiring. The center-right’s candidate, Sebastián Piñera, gained votes by promising to return to the rapid economic growth rates that had characterized Chile in the 1980s and 1990s while retaining the social measures put in place by his immediate predecessors.

As the electoral map shows, Frei did well in the major mining regions of the north (Antofagasta and Atacama) and in the agricultural heartland to the south of Santiago (O’Higgins and Maule). Frei also did well in some urban areas, including Concepcion, Valdivia, and parts of Santiago (although not in Valparaiso). Piñera, however, won the metropolitan areas overall, as well as the entire south. He did particularly well in the extreme north, in the Mapuche Indian heartland of Araucanía, and in Aisén, where governmental hydroelectric plans are unpopular. The center-right’s victory in Araucanía is noteworthy, as conservative political parties rarely do well in heavily indigenous areas. The Mapuche, however, have been struggling with non-Mapuche residents of their region over forestry and land-rights issues, leading to high levels of political polarization.

What is most striking about the recent Chilean election is not which candidate won in which region, but rather the fact that the vote was so evenly balanced. In the map on the left, I designated darker shades to indicate regions in which one of the candidates received more than 55 and more than 60 percent of the vote. Just three regions fell into the former category, and only one in the latter. In most of Chile, the margin of victory was relatively slight.

Democratic countries in which national unity is challenged by regional or ethnic identity typically show geographically distinctive voting patterns. Bolivia with its southwest-east divide is one such country: Ukraine, divided east to west, is another. We have also seen how the Hungarian-populated districts in Romania overwhelmingly vote for Hungarian political parties. In more firmly united countries, regional voting differences are much less pronounced. By this criterion, Chile shows high levels of national coherence. Such cohesion was also demonstrated in 2006, when Bachelet bested Piñera in every region except Araucanía, but exceeded 6o percent only in Atacama and Antofogasta.

The United States has exhibited larger geographical voting variation than has Chile in recent elections. In 2008, one candidate or the other received more than 60 percent of the vote in fifteen states. In 2004, George Bush received more than 60 percent of the vote in ten states, and more than 70 percent in one (Utah).

The Geography of the Chilean Election Read More »