U.S. electoral geography

Geographical Patterns in the 2022 Election, Part 1, The North-Central United States

The U.S. House of Representatives 2022 election was an almost exact inverse of the 2020 contest. In 2020, the Democrats won 50.8 percent of the popular vote nationwide and took 222 seats; in 2022, the Republicans won 50.7 percent of the popular vote nationwide and will probably end up with 222 seats. Yet both parties can credibly claim to have triumphed in this election. The Republicans took control of the House, but they performed worse than expected. The party out of power at the presidential level usually loses more seats in a midterm election, and in this contest the Democrats faced serious headwinds, including an unpopular president, a high rate of inflation, and a pervasive feeling that the country is headed in the wrong direction.

The electoral geography of the United States has been in transition for the past several decades, with nonmetropolitan regions trending in the Republican direction as metropolitan areas trend in the Democratic direction. The Pacific Coast and the southern half of the interior West have also shifted toward the Democrats, as has the Northeast, while the Midwest and the South have moved toward the Republicans. In the 2022 contest, some of these trends continued but others showed signs of reversal. The Republicans won two more non-metropolitan House seats in the Midwest, while the Democrats cemented their hold along the Pacific coast, winning every House district bordering the ocean, even that of red-state Alaska. But the Republicans picked up some unexpected seats in the metropolitan Mid-Atlantic, particularly in the New York City area, while the Democrats realized a few gains of their own in the Midwest and South.

All these patterns will be explored in later posts. The remainder of this one focuses on the electoral transformation of the north-central region of the country. This area has been trending “red” for some time. Here the Republicans picked up two House seats in 2022 and three in 2020 . But as recently as 2008, a radically different electoral geography appears, as the Democrats then held most of the region’s seats. Even the Dakotas are blue on the 2008 map. The political transformation of this general region can also be seen in recent presidential elections. The next set of maps moves the frame of reference a bit to the east and south to illustrate this electoral transformation. As is readily visible, non-metropolitan areas of Minnesota, Iowa, northern Missouri, Illinois, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan have seen a pronounced red shift over the past 30 years. This transformation is particularly notable in Minnesota. In the landslide election of 1984, Minnesota was the only state to opt for Democrat Walter Mondale over Republican Ronald Reagan; in 2020 Donald Trump lost Minnesota, but only by a narrow margin.

In Minnesota’s 2022 midterm election, the Democrats performed well. Democratic Tim Waltz won the gubernatorial election with 52.3 percent of the vote, but more importantly the Democrats established control over both branches of the state legislature. As can be seen on the first map below, the Democratic Party thus established “trifecta” control in Minnesota, just as it did in Michigan, Massachusetts, and Maryland. But the metropolitan/non-metropolitan divide continues to deepen, as can be seen in maps of the Minnesota State House of Representatives. In 2022, the Democrats triumphed here because they dominated the vote in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul metropolitan region. Peripheral Minnesota, on the other hand, is almost entirely red. Even the mining country of the northeast, historically one of the most solid Democratic strongholds in the country, supported Republican candidates in the 2022 state legislative elections. Contrastingly, the Twin Cities metropolitan area has been moving further in the “blue” direction.


For Minnesota as a whole, the modest blue shift in the 2022 election seems to be closely linked to the pro-Trump stance of several prominent Republican candidates. A argued by Minnesota State Representative Emma Greenman in a MINNPOST article:

From the top of the ticket, Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen repeatedly refused to acknowledge that Joe Biden won the 2020 election and publicly suggested that Secretary of State Steve Simon should be jailed. The Republican candidate running to be Minnesota’s chief elections officer, Kim Crockett called herself “the election denier in chief” … . In the statewide match-up that put the issue of democracy directly to voters, Secretary of State Steve Simon soundly beat Kim Crockett and won more votes than any other statewide candidate. In Minnesota’s swing legislative districts, DFLer* challengers defeated extremist election deniers, including an incumbent from Circle Pines who is a member of the Oathkeepers, and a St. Peter incumbent who attended and defended the Jan. 6 Storm the Capitol rally in St. Paul.

Similar results were found in other states in which Republican nominees strongly supported Donald Trump and questioned the results of the 2020 presidential election, as we shall see in later posts.

* The Minnesota affiliate of the U.S. Democratic Party is officially called the “Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party,” or DFL.

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Changes in U.S. Electoral Geography from 2000 to 2012: A Renewed North/South Divide?

As noted in a previous post, the presidential contest of 2000 seems to have been a watershed event in U.S. electoral geography. Up until that point, successful Democratic candidates enjoyed considerable support in many predominantly rural counties dominated by Whites, particularly in the Upper South (see the map of the 1996 election). In order for the Democrats to have carried many of these counties, southern candidates seem to have been necessary. As a result, all successful Democratic candidates from 1964 to 1996 were southerners (Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton). In 2000, the Democratic Party held to the same strategy, nominating Al Gore of Tennessee. But Gore, who is a much stronger environmentalist than most southern Democrats, lost support massively across rural, White America. Although he narrowly won the popular vote nationwide, Gore lost the Electoral College, as most states opted for George W. Bush, including Gore’s native Tennessee.

Since the 2000 election, the basic patterns of electoral geography at the county level have remained relatively constant. But a number of relatively minor shifts have occurred, which are worth examining.  Today’s post therefore compares the 2000 and 2012 U.S. presidential elections at the county level. These two contests make particularly good comparisons, as their popular vote figures were close, especially on the Republican side (in 2000, Al Gore took 48.4 percent of the vote against George W. Bush’s 47.9 percent, whereas in 2012, Barack Obama took 50.7 percent against Mitt Romney’s 47.7 percent).

The basic differences between the two elections result from a continuation of the trends that produced the map of 2000. Democratic support in the interior portion of the Upper South continues to plummet, with most of the region’s few remaining blue counties turning red. At the national level, one sees a slight intensification of macro-regional patterns, with the South trending a bit more Republican and the North trending a bit more Democratic. At the local level of analysis, however, a number of exceptions to this pattern can be seen. To make such differences more immediately apparent, I have divided the United States into three parts, juxtaposing the 2000 map of each region against that of 2012.

The paired maps of the eastern third of the country clearly show a Democratic advance in New England and adjacent areas in New York. A number of counties in northern and central Virginia also turned blue, as did a few in central North Carolina. South Carolina also has a few more blue counties, generally the result of enhanced turnout in the Black community. Northern Ohio also tended in the Democratic direction, although the opposite tendency occurred in southeastern Ohio, which is part of the central Appalachian region that has exhibited the most pronounced red shift. Similar Republican gains were made across Tennessee and in northern Alabama. A movement to the Republican side is also evident in rural counties in the northern reaches of Michigan’s lower peninsula, while a few urban counties in Indiana contrastingly moved in the Democratic direction.

The central third of the U.S. exhibits the strongest pattern of regional differentiation, with the southern half of the area trending Republican and the northern half trending Democratic. Illinois is itself spilt by this divide; note that the northern half of the state, and especially the Chicago suburbs, shifted blue between 2000 and 2012, whereas the southern half shows a red shift. The strongest move to the Republican Party on this map occurred in Oklahoma and Arkansas. In the northern Great Plains, in contrast, a handful of rural, predominantly White counties moved into the Democratic camp. Texas, however, deviates from this north/south pattern, exhibiting instead a rural/urban divide. Note that the few rural counties in Texas that voted for Gore in 2000 (outside of the heavily Hispanic south) supported Romney in 2012. Yet over the same period, the urban counties of Bexar (San Antonio), Travis (Austin), Harris (Houston), and Dallas (Dallas) all moved in the opposite direction, although only Travis gave a substantial margin of its votes to Obama.

In the western third of the U.S., the shift at the county level from 2000 to 2012 was entirely in the Democratic direction, although most of the region remains solidly Republican. In the non-metropolitan parts of the region, most blue-trending counties can be explained by such factors as migration by people from blue states seeking natural amenities (Teton County, Wyoming), or the presence of universities with large student populations (Missoula County, Montana). The two rural counties in north-central Montana that have turned blue (Blaine and Hill) both have substantial American Indian populations.

Andrew Sullivan and several other commentators have argued that the Republican Party is increasingly keyed to the American South, and in particular to the old Confederacy. The map analysis provided above indicates a tendency in this direction, but only a relatively slight one. As Karen Cox recently argued in the New York Times, the conservatism of the South is often exaggerated, as many of its urban counties continue to support Democratic candidates—although it is notable that only ten percent of Whites in Alabama voted for Obama. At the same time, in the North many counties remain staunchly Republican. In central Pennsylvania, only semi-metropolitan Dauphin County (Harrisburg) gave a majority of its votes to Obama; most counties in this region overwhelmingly supported Mitt Romney. Even Centre County, home of the massive Pennsylvania State University, is colored red, albeit in the lightest shade of the color possible (Romney took the country by twenty votes, out of some 67,000 cast).

Owning to its conservative nature, central Pennsylvania is sometimes referred to as “Pennsyltucky,” which the Wikipedia tells us is a “portmanteau constructed from “Pennsylvania” and “Kentucky”, implying a similarity between the rural parts of the two states. It can be used in either a pejorative or an affectionate sense.” In 1992, Democratic strategist James Carville similarly referred to central Pennsylvania as “Alabama without the Blacks.” A 2008 blog posting by Brian Schaffner in the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, however, disputes this characterization, arguing that the region actually has more cultural features in common with the rest of Pennsylvania than it does with Alabama. Surveys show, for example, that many more central Pennsylvanians regard political comedian Jon Stewart favorably than do residents of Alabama, just as many more Alabamans than central Pennsylvanians shop at Walmart. I suspect, however, that voting behavior makes a better yardstick in this regard than shopping patterns. Still, Schaffner’s analysis is intriguing.

(“Pennsyltucky”  Image credit here)


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Iowa, Minnesota, and the Anomalous Zone on the U.S. Electoral Map

In recent U.S. presidential elections, rural counties have tended to vote heavily for the Republican candidates. As a result, most of the United States is shaded red on county-level electoral maps. Most of the low-population counties that do support Democratic candidates fall into one of several categories. In some cases the explanation is clearly demographic; the heavily African-American belt stretching from southeastern Virginia to western Mississippi, the heavily Hispanic areas of northern New Mexico and southern Texas, and the scattered Native American counties in the northern Great Plains and the Southwest have long been Democratic strongholds. Location also plays a role, as rural counties in New England and on the Pacific Coast that are closely connected with nearby metropolitan areas also tend to support Democrats. Most of the other seemingly anomalous blue rural counties can usually be explained by their specific characteristics, such as the presence of a major ski resort (Blaine County, Idaho), a local economy based (or recently based) on unionized mining (Silver Bow County, Montana), or the existence of a large college (Athens County, Ohio).

One large block of largely rural, Democratic-voting territory, however, does not fit into any of these categories. In what might be called the “Upper Mississippi River Valley Anomaly,” one finds a substantial cluster of mostly agricultural, deeply religious, heavily Caucasian “blue” counties. In this area focused on southwestern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, eastern Iowa, and northwestern Illinois, almost all counties opted for Barack Obama. A few counties in western Minnesota and in the eastern Dakotas, located just outside this contiguous zone, also exhibit the same pattern.

The voting behavior in few of the counties in this zone can be explained by their particular characteristics. Dark-blue Dane county in Wisconsin, for example, is the site of the main campus of the state university, and the same is true in regard to Johnson County in Iowa. Strongly Democratic Mower County in Minnesota, in contrast, contains a massive meatpacking facility, and is therefore a labor stronghold. Most of the counties in this area, however, are typical farming communities, dominated by Whites and slowly losing population. Consider, for example, Mitchell County Iowa, population 10,776 (having dropped from 14,121 in 1940). As the Wikipedia article on the county notes, “Mitchell County was the whitest county in the country, at 99.27%, to vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential election. Obama garnered 56% of the vote, while John McCain received 44%.” Obama’s margin over Mitt Romney in 2012 was not so wide, but the President still took Mitchell County with room to spare.

The Upper Mississippi River Valley Anomaly dates back roughly a dozen years. In the early 1980s, the area was heavily Republican, overwhelmingly supporting Ronald Reagan. In the 1990s, many counties in the region turned to Democratic Bill Clinton, but so too did many other parts of the country with similar demographic and economic characteristics. By 2000, however, a distinct atypical zone had emerged in this region. As result, Iowa in particular has become a divided state, red in the west and blue in the east. The same spatial divide can be seen in primary elections; Republicans in western Iowa, for example, were less inclined to support Romney’s nomination than those in the east, favoring instead the more conservative candidates such as Rick Santorum and Rick Perry.

It is difficult to find correlations that might help explain this phenomenon. As the paired political and demographic maps of Iowa indicate, more of the blue and light-red counties in the state have larger cities and towns than the deep-red counties, but the linkage is not strong. Nor can the Iowa vote in general be explained on the basis of religion, as the state’s main religious divide separates the south from the north, not the east from the west.  (As can be seen in the maps, southern Iowa has lower rates of church attendance and a higher proportion of Methodists than the deeply religious, strongly Lutheran north.) Religion does seem to be a factor, however, in the strongly Republican northwestern corner of Iowa, where three counties are dominated by members of the historically Calvinist Reformed Church.

Similarly, factors that might help explain the existence of the larger Upper Mississippi River Valley Anomaly are difficult to locate. The agricultural foundations of the local economies do not seem to play a role, as the “anomalous zone” includes part of the Corn Belt and part of the Midwestern dairy belt. Issues of ethnic heritage also seem to be minor. The zone in question is heavily German, but so too are surrounding areas. Much the same can be said in regard to Norwegian background; many of the farming counties that have been voting for Democratic candidates in recent elections were heavily settled by Norwegians, but so too were a number of decidedly Republican counties in North Dakota.

Minnesota is also the key site of another intriguing anomaly in U.S. electoral geography. Over the past few decades, the state as a whole has been solidly blue, not opting for a Republican candidate since Richard Nixon’s landslide victory in 1972. Yet a number of Republican strategists thought that Romney had a good chance of taking Minnesota in 2012. In the end, Obama won the state by more than a seven percent margin, but that margin was still relatively thin when compared with those found in other solidly blue states.

To the extent that Minnesota might be regarded as a purple-trending swing state, the answer is located in suburbs. In the northeastern and Pacific Coast states, the suburbs have switched in the past three decades from Republican to Democratic bastions. As conservative historian Vincent Cannato notes, “The GOP needs to run better in affluent suburban counties. If the party of business and economic growth can’t do well among the most prosperous and economically vibrant parts of the nation, then something is seriously wrong.” But in Minnesota, and in neighboring Wisconsin as well, the suburbs remain red. In fact, they have moved in the Republican direction over the past few decades. Consider, for example, the paired maps of the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area posted here. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan took 489 out of 538 electoral votes nationally, Jimmy Carter took almost the entire metro area. In 2012, however, Obama lost most of the suburban counties, while easily wining the mostly urban counties of Hennepin (Minneapolis) and Ramsey (St. Paul). The northern suburbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul are represented in Congress by Michele Bachmann, one of the most conservative members of the House of Representatives. Bachmann won reelection this year, although narrowly.

When examined over the past three decades, Minnesota thus exhibits dual anomalies, with affluent suburban counties trending Republican and the rural, farming counties in the southeast (and to some extent in the far west) trending Democratic. (The mining and logging counties of the northeast have remained in the Democratic camp over this period.) Such patterns are difficult to explain. If any readers have any ideas, I would love to see them.


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