Nate Silver

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.

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