U.S. 2014 Election

The Geography of Iowa’s Republican Shift

2012 US Exception Election MapAs mentioned in the previous post, one of the few parts of the United States in which White-majority rural (or small-city-focused) counties regularly vote for Democrats in national elections is the “greater Upper Mississippi Valley,” as outlined on the map posted here. Across the country more generally, non-metropolitan White-majority “blue” countries are found on the Pacific Cost and in the Northeast; elsewhere they can usually be linked to specific occupational or demographic characteristics, such as the presence of major universities (Athens County, Ohio), a historical legacy of unionized mining (Silver Bow County, Montana), or the presence of major outdoor amenities, such as ski resorts (Blaine County, Idaho). But only in a few parts of the Upper Midwest can one find Democratic-voting, White-majority, non-metropolitan countries that do not have these specific characteristics. A major question now is whether the Upper Mississippi Valley will retain its distinctive voting pattern. If the 2014 U.S. senate election in Iowa is any indication, the answer may well be “no.”

Iowa is regarded as a particularly important state in U.S. politics for two reasons. First, it holds the earliest party caucuses, and thus plays an outsized role in selecting the presidential candidates of both parties. Second, it has been something of a “swing state” in recent elections, with relatively close contests between Republican and Democratic candidates. In general, western Iowa tends to the Republican side while eastern Iowa usually support Democrats, a pattern clearly evident on the 2012 presidential election map.

Iowa Politcal Change GraphIn 2014, however, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Iowa, Joni Ernst, shocked political pollsters with her commanding victory over her Democratic opponent, Bruce Braley. As Harry Enten, writing in FiveThirtyEightPolitics, notes:

Republican Sen.-elect Joni Ernst easily won her race in Iowa last Tuesday, beating Democrat Bruce Braley by 8.5 percentage points. Her victory wasn’t shocking, but its size was (to everyone except pollster Ann Selzer, that is). The final FiveThirtyEight projection had Ernst winning by just 1.5 percentage points.

What the heck happened?

Enten attributes this unexpected margin of victory to the fact that Barack Obama’s popularity has dropped more sharply in Iowa than in the rest of the country, which in turn has made Iowa a more Republican-leaning state. His careful statistical analysis shows that one group in particular has been abandoning the Democrats in Iowa. As he explains:

Here’s one explanation: White voters in Iowa without a college degree have shifted away from the Democratic Party. And if that shift persists, it could have a big effect on the presidential race in 2016, altering the White House math by eliminating the Democratic edge in the electoral college.Iowa 2012 2014 ElectionsThe movement of non-college-educated White voters away from the Democrats is a national phenomenon, but it has been more pronounced in Iowa than elsewhere.

Although Enten does not mention it, gaffes by the Democratic senatorial candidate Braley probably played a significant role. Braley’s comments at an out-of-state fundraising event attended mostly by lawyers attracted considerable attention in the state:

[I]f you help me win this race you may have someone with your background, your experience, your voice, someone who’s been literally fighting tort reform for thirty years, in a visible or public way, on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Or, you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Because, if Democrats lose the majority, Chuck Grassley will be the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

As conservative blogger Erick Erickson noted, such comments were “colossally stupid,” especially when one considers how important agriculture is to the state of Iowa. Insulting the state’s farmers is not a good ploy.

Iowa 2014 Election Population MapAs it turns out, only a handful of truly rural counties in Iowa supported Bruce Braley in the 2014 election. As the map that I have annotated indicates, most of the counties that he won are dominated by small or mid-sized cities. To be sure, counties with such demographic characteristics elsewhere in the Midwest generally vote Republican, showing that there is still something of an “Upper Mississippi Valley Exception.” But when it comes to the more purely agricultural counties, Braley had little success. It would be interesting to examine the remaining exceptions, such as “still-blue” Howard County in the northeast, which saw its population peak at 13,705 in 1920 and which is 99.06 percent White. (Howard County happens to be the birthplace and childhood-home of Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, often deemed the founder of the Green Revolution.) Note as well that the more urban counties of western Iowa remain in the Republican camp. More surprising was the Republican win in Scott County (centered on Davenport), as it is the Iowa’s third-most populous county and is located in the extreme east along the Mississippi River.

Iowa 2008 2014 Senate ElectionsIt is instructive to contrast the 2014 Iowa senatorial election with that of 2008. In the earlier election, Tom Harkin, one of the more left-leaning members of the U.S. senate, won an overwhelming victory, taking all but five counties. Harkin was helped by the fact that 2008 was a highly favorable year for Democrats and was further boosted by the gaffes of his opponent. As noted in the Wikipedia:

On October 23, [Republican candidate Christopher] Reed and Senator Harkin met for a debate on Iowa Public Television. During the debate, Reed made personal attacks on Harkin, accusing him of being the “Tokyo Rose of Al-Qaeda and Middle East terrorism” and calling him “anti-American” and alleging that he provided “aid and comfort to the enemy” in a speech calling for the closure of the United States military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After the debate, both Harkin and moderator David Yepsen chastised Reed for the attacks. Yepsen said that he had “never heard a candidate make that kind of serious charge about his opponent.”

In the 2014 Campaign, Republican candidate Joni Ernst made several comments that the Democrats hoped would cost her votes. These included, as noted in the Washington Post, her claims that “we have created ‘a generation of people that rely on the government to provide absolutely everything for them,’ and that wrenching them away from their dependence ‘is going to be very painful.’” Evidently such statements had little effect. On the other hand, Ernst might have gained votes by her most widely quoted comment: “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.”


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Does the Red-State/Blue-State Model of U.S. Electoral Politics Still Work?

Red States Blue StatesSince the 2000 election, it has been common to divide the United States into a “Red America” of reliably Republican-voting states and a “Blue America” of reliably Democratic-voting states, a maneuver that highlights the relative scarcity of “purple” or swing states. As can be seen in the Wikipedia map posted to the left, “blue” states are concentrated in the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and the Pacific Coast, with New Mexico forming something of a blue outlier.

This red-state/blue-state model has been subjected to much criticism. To begin with, it reverses the color scheme used more widely across the world, in which red signifies the left and blue the right. This system is still used in Dave Leip’s excellent on-line Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, but it now proves highly confusing for most Americans. But deeper problems are also encountered. Perhaps most significant is the fact that there are many “red” areas in most “blue” states, just as there are quite a few “blue” zones in most “red” states, as can be seen in maps based on county-level data. Such maps, however, exaggerate the extent of “Red America,” as Democratic-voting areas tend to be more densely populated than Republican-voting ones. Equally problematic is the fact that many areas are roughly split between the two major parties, and should thus be mapped as purple.

2012 US Election CartogramSuch problems are surmounted to some degree in red-purple-blue cartograms, such as the one posted here of the 2012 presidential election. This map, however, has caused a minor controversy in my own household, as I find it gorgeous and informative while my wife considers it hideous and confusing. Some experts in color perception also object to red-purple-blue maps, contending that we Larry Weru's 2012 Election Mapperceive purple differently if it is surrounded with blue than if it is surrounded by red. Larry Weru thus adds green to the mixture, and ends up with a blue-gray-red map that more clearly shows counties in which presidential elections are competitive.

114th Senate mapBut regardless of such consideration, the maps of the 2014 U.S. election clearly reveal a major “red-shift” in voting behavior. Intriguingly, this shift is least evident on the map of the incoming U.S. Senate. Despite the fact that the Republicans picked up several seats and now command a clear majority in the Senate, the basic red-blue regional pattern still holds on this map, albeit with an expanded “purple” zone of mixed representation. But on the map of the incoming 114th House MapHouse of Representatives, much of the supposedly “blue” mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions appear rather as a sea of red, with only major cities voting for Democrats. Outside of New England the Pacific Coast, few non-metropolitan districts without Hispanic or African-American majorities supported Democratic candidates. Most of those that did are located in the Upper Mississippi region, centered on Minnesota, as will be examined in a subsequent post.

2015 US Governors MapIn the gubernatorial and state legislative election of 2014, somewhat different patterns are encountered. Overall, the “red shift” was pronounced here as well, with the Republicans picking up several state governors and legislative 2014 Governors Election maphouses. (In Illinois, generally regarded as a solidly “blue” state, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate won only a single county, although it [Cook] is the second most heavily populated county in the country.) But when it comes to such non-national elections, US States Legislatures Election MapRepublicans can be more competitive in “blue” states just as Democrats can be more competitive in “red” states, as they can run on platforms to the left and right, respectively, of their national parties. Thus a Republican champion of gay marriage can win the gubernatorial race in deep-blue Massachusetts, while such Republican states as Missouri and Kentucky still have Democratic governors (who, admittedly, were not up for reelection in 2014).

With the rightward swing of the 2014 election, very few U.S. states are now dominated by the Democratic Party at both the national and local levels. Only four small states—Connecticut, Democrats Vote 2014 Governors MapDelaware, Rhode Island, and Hawaii—remain “fully blue,” meaning that all their senators and members of the House of Representatives, as well as their governors, are Democrats, and that the Democratic Party also controls both of their state legislative chambers. (Vermont also fits into this category in an informal sense, as its independent senator Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist.) California and Oregon almost fit the pattern as well, but in both cases their conservative eastern areas have voted for Republicans for the House of Representatives. And as the final map indicates, even in some of these reliably blue states (Oregon, Connecticut, Rhode Island), the Democratic gubernatorial candidates won with thin margins.

Although the 2016 election could produce very different patterns, the United States must be currently viewed as a mostly “red and purple” land.

Does the Red-State/Blue-State Model of U.S. Electoral Politics Still Work? Read More »

Gerrymandering in the United States: Crimes Against Geography?

(Note: The next several GeoCurrents posts will examine the 2014 U.S. Midterm Elections)

Goofy Kicking Donald DuckIn my large lecture course on the History and Geography of Current Global Events, I always begin by showing an enigmatic or amusing map with the labels removed. I then ask the class what it represents. Recent examples include a map of the range of fruit bats (for a lecture on Ebola) and cartogram of Brazil 2010 election (for a lecture on Brazil’s 2014 election). Next Tuesday’s lecture will begin with the image posted to the left. The answer this time is obvious, provided in the form of Pennsylvania 7th Congressional Districta one-question quiz: “d. Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District.” The other possible answers derive from a contest run by the Washington Post to name the oddly shaped districts. The winner was “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck,” while the other choices on my quiz were among the contest’s “honorable mentions.”

Pennsylvania’s 7th is by no means the only severely gerrymandered congressional district in the United States. A fascinating Wonkblog post by Christopher Ingraham from May 15, 2014 aptly describes a number of these districts as “crimes against geography.” Ingraham nicely Gerrymandered Districtsexplains the rationale and mechanics of the process. As he notes:

Contrary to one popular misconception about the practice, the point of gerrymandering isn’t to draw yourself a collection of overwhelmingly safe seats. Rather, it’s to give your opponents a small number of safe seats, while drawing yourself a larger number of seats that are not quite as safe, but that you can expect to win comfortably.

Ingraham also shows that a majority of the heavily gerrymandered districts were drawn by Republicans eager to enhance their own electoral advantages. But he also demonstrates that that process is encountered on both side of the political divide. As he goes on to write:

Maryland and North Carolina are home to some of the ugliest districts in the nation among states with at least three Congressional districts. In fact, North Carolina is home to three out of the top 10 most-gerrymandered districts in the country. Maryland is proof that gerrymandering isn’t just a Republican pastime, as the state’s Democrats redrew those boundaries in 2012. The standout in that state is the 3rd Congressional district, which is the nation’s second-most gerrymandered and home to Democratic congressman John Sarbanes.

Gerrymandering Index MapIngraham’s most significant contribution is his measuring and mapping of the extent of gerrymandering, a feat that has been previously performed (see here and here), but probably not quite so successfully. As his map shows, some states are far more gerrymandered than others. The least manipulated congressional districts are found in both Republican states (Indiana, Kansas) and Democratic ones (New Mexico), as well as in swing states (Iowa). As Ingraham further notes, “Gerrymandering is easier to get away with in more densely-populated areas,” most of which lean in the direction of the Democratic Party. (States depicted in gray have only one congressional district, and hence cannot be gerrymandered.)

Only a few of the most egregiously gerrymandered districts stand out on the map of the 2014 midterm election. They are difficult to see in part because the map is so dominated by red, reflecting in part Republican success in recent elections and in part the pronounced clustering of Democratic US 2014 House Votevoters in densely populated urban and inner suburban areas. But in North Carolina, which has North Carolina Gerrymanderingrecently become a crucial “purple” state hotly contested by the two major parties, the effects of gerrymandering are clearly evident. To illustrate this, I have juxtaposed a map of North Carolina’s vote in the 2012 Presidential Election organized by congressional districts with a map based on the same data but organized by counties. The difference is striking.

North_Carolina_US_Congressional_District_12_(since_2013).tifIngraham contends that North Carolina’s 12 Congressional District is the country’s most severely gerrymandered. Yet it is evidently not as aberrant in shape as it once was. As noted in the Wikipedia:

It was drawn in 1992 as one of two black majority (minority-majority) districts, designed to give blacks (who comprised 22% of the state’s population at the time) the chance to elect a representative of their choice. In its original configuration, it was a 64 percent black-majority district stretching from Gastonia to Durham. It was very long and so thin at some points that it was no wider than a highway lane, as it followed Interstate 85 almost exactly.

It was criticized as a racially gerrymandered district. For instance, the Wall Street Journal called the district “political pornography.” The United States Supreme Court ruled in Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993) that a racial gerrymander may, in some circumstances, violate the Equal Protection Clause. The state legislature had defended the two districts as based on demographics, with the 12th representing the interior Piedmont area and the 1st the Coastal Plain. Subsequently, the district was redrawn several times and was adjudicated in the Supreme Court on two additional occasions. The version created after the 2000 census was approved by the US Supreme Court in Hunt v. Cromartie. The current version dates from the 2010 census; like the 2003-2013 version, it has a small plurality of whites, though blacks make up a large majority of registered voters. In all of its configurations, it has been a Democratic stronghold dominated by black voters in Charlotte and the Piedmont Triad.


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