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

Submitted by on November 15, 2012 – 10:59 pm 53 Comments |  
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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  • Parts of the upper Midwest were strongholds of the Populist movement in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Perhaps these sentiments still exist more than a hundred years later?

    An amusing observation: the line of heavily Democratic black counties from Virginia to Mississippi looks like a slightly crooked smile.

    • Interesting point on the Populists. In the 1992 election, Populist candidate James Weaver did very well in the Great Plains, especially in the Dakotas, Kansas, and Nebraska, as well as in the mining districts of the West. He did not do so well, however, in Iowa, Wisconsin, or southern Minnesota.

      • Stan

        But historically, socialist candidates were the strongest in places like Louisiana and Oklahoma (e.g. Huey Long).

        • Long was definitely a populist, but I don’t know if one would call him a socialist. With the centralization of power in the governor, and really in Long personally, he really seems to me more like a sort of Peronist authoritarian.

  • Sara

    As a born and raised Iowan now living elsewhere, I’ve always thought the socialist tendencies of Scandinavian heritage come into play in IA and MN especially. In the case of the last two elections, Iowans inconceivably voted for Obama and I think that was influenced by Obama being from nearby Illinois.

    • Good point on the Scandinavian heritage, but the problem is that other parts of the region, such as western Iowa and central North Dakota, have the same heritage, yet are now relatively conservative. The proximity to Chicago could also be important. Thanks for bringing that up.

      • I wonder about socialist tendencies of Scandinavian Americans. I believe the largest immigration of Scandinavians to the United States came before there was much of a socialist tendency in Scandinavia itself.

        • That’s an interesting point, James.

        • If those tendencies do exist, perhaps they could be chalked up to a perceived kinship with the modern Scandonavia. It’s not uncommon for Americans to harbor a soft spot for their ancestral homelands.

          • Attempting to explain this in terms of connections to Scandinavia is certainly tempting, but as some other people pointed out in this discussion, may not work fully. As for the soft spot for their ancestral homeland, I think it works for Scandinavians but perhaps not for all other immigrant groups. A fascinating subject, to be sure!

          • I’ve observed it or heard of it in a wide variety of ethnic groups, but it certainly doesn’t apply to all individuals. I suspect that because “American” isn’t thought of as an ethnic identity in the U.S. (or even “White American”, which anthropologically speaking probably should be considered an ethnic identity), many people in the U.S. look back to their ancestors when searching for their identity in the ethnic sense. When discussing cultural identity, most White Americans will either tell you they have “no culture” or else refer you to the national origin of their ancestors.

          • That’s an excellent point, Evan! I agree that when it comes to ethnic identity, looking back to where they come from is probably very common among immigrants, but they don’t necessarily identify themselves with the country/state that they come from.

  • The Democratic mining and logging counties of Northeastern Minnesota are interesting as well. Earlier in the last century, I might have expected areas dependent on mining and logging, like West Virginia and parts of Washington, to vote Democratic because of union support, but since the Democratic party has become so strongly identified with environmental scruples, it looks like support for the Democratic party has ebbed in many of the areas where mining and logging are important. I wonder why miners and loggers in Minnesota are so different from their colleagues in West Virginia and Washington. Could it be that they think President Obama would be less likely to have a negative effect on exports of iron to China?

    • Fascinating comments. I do wonder. NE Minnesota was heavily settled by Swedes and Finns, which may plan a role, although your comment below does show that no easy correlations can be made here.

    • Eric Miller

      Maybe there’s less of an environmental lobby there?

      • SirBedevere

        Well, it would be more, rather than less, but the question is why?

        • Eric Miller

          Hmm, I don’t think of that area as a hotbed of environmentalism like the Pacific northwest and other areas.

          • SirBedevere

            Well, Minnesota and Wisconsin have quite active environmentalist movements. I don’t know about Iowa or Northwestern Illinois. The Northwest also has quite active environmental movements, but in the 1970s, there were still very many people outside the cities of Puget Sound who made their living from logging, fishing, and farming, and very few of them were sympathetic to environmentalist movements, at least in the forms they took in the cities. The growth in the population of Western Washington, primarily from immigration, however, has completely swamped the loggers and fishermen off my childhood.

          • Eric Miller

            So if environmental activists are present why is it that they and the mining/logging folks have not alienated each other I wonder. And why does the latter remain in the democrat fold? Anomalous indeed!

          • SirBedevere

            Indeed. That is what puzzled me and had me speculating whether some other Democratic policy might trump any worries about environmental regulations.

          • Eric Miller

            Interestingly, western Illinois trends democrat as well (in the presidential election anyway) but it certainly is not an environmental hotbed. A couple of its small cities are dying industrial centers (my hometown of Galesburg for example) which may be a factor. Then too there may be a native son thing going on there.

          • SirBedevere

            There may be, although my relatives in Morgan County definitely see him as a Chicagoan (as I currently see myself), which is worse than a foreigner.

  • It looks as if Utah, Oklahoma and West Virginia are the only states in which Romney won every county.

    • And I’d say Obama took all of Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Hawaii, but what’s the deal with Alaska on this map?

  • Take a look at this county choropleth map that overlays electoral results with population. It makes some patterns even clearer.

  • This article reveals some interesting observations at the county level. Another interesting view is from the state electoral level where the red states roughly coincide with the conservative south and pipeline states from Canada to Texas.

    • Thank you, Geo Speech, for sending us the link to this treasure trove of electoral maps. More on the subject of the elections coming soon, hopefully!

      • Andre Engels

        Through that site I found the following page: . It talks about a county type ’emptying nests’, characterized by a high percentage of older people, especially in the 55-65 age range. They are noted by being the one most changing from 2004 to 2012, in the democratic direction. And the big concentration of them seems to well correspond to your ‘Upper Mississippi Valley Anomaly’.

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  • Fedor Manin

    This region corresponds to the Driftless Area — the glaciers avoided it during the last ice age.

    It’s still unclear why this makes it liberal and/or Democratic.

  • Pingback: Are you “Driftless”? | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine()

  • Pingback: Mastering Astronomy | Are you “Driftless”? | Gene Expression()

  • Kirsten

    This is interesting, thanks for the post! I’m from Jefferson county in Iowa (second tier from the bottom, eastern half). Based on my experience, it’s easier for me to see only more subtle, county-by-county effects rather than any sort of overarching explanatory factor like you seem to be searching for here.

    (Disclaimer: this post is only based on personal anecdotal observations).

    For example, a substantial proportion of Jefferson County’s population is part of a transcendental meditation subculture, so it tends to run quite liberal. The biggest employers in the county the west, Wapello, are a meat-packing plant and a john deere factory, both of which have attracted lots of new immigrant families. As such, it is not surprising to me at all that both of these counties voted for Obama. The other red counties surrounding Jefferson/Wapello I’ve always had the vague impression of as pretty saliently rural / conservative in comparison. I’m sure people from some of the other blue counties up North might be able to offer some similar anecdotal evidence for voting patterns.

    On another note, it’s also not too surprising to me that counties with aging demographics would remain democratic. Both sides of my family have farmed for several generations. It seems fairly common for farmers of my grandparents’ generation (in their 70’s/80’s) to lean democratic, because they value government’s social support programs for the working man, while farmers of my dad’s and uncles’ generation (40’s/50’s) tend to value a minimization of taxes. As a young, liberal 20-something, my political views aligned more closely with my grandparents’ than with my parents this election.

    • Thank you for the interesting comments, Fromthere, Melissa, and Kirsten!

  • Pingback: Are you “Driftless”? | Gene Expression | My Blog()

  • Melissa

    Maybe irrelevant, but my family has a small farm in that region. We bought it as outsiders, coming from the Chicago area, and it seems like other people from the urban Midwest also buy places in that area. It’s got a bit of a micro-food culture and the local food promoting organization claims “The Driftless Region boasts one of the largest concentrations of organic and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in the country.” 75% of the states artisan cheese is made in the Driftless region and it’s home to the nation’s largest organic dairy cooperative Organic Valley. The regulations/zoning where we are ensure that the area will not suburbanize, which gives extra incentive for outsiders to invest in food/agriculture projects. So my overall impression of this region is that it is increasingly going to function as an “artisan” foodshed for the urban midwest, which will have a “blue-ing” effect.

    • Eric Miller

      My dad, also a Chicagoan, had a place there too!

  • Fromthere

    Are you overlooking the ethnic Catholics who settled more recently than the Civil War? Being from the margins of that area, I suspect it is they who tip the region slightly Democrat – for reasons of tradition. You will also find people in that area, and the iron range
    , voting Democrat because of FDR, not Obama.

  • Stephen

    I bet the correlating factor is farm size. Driftless = smaller spreads, anti- agribusiness, pro-coops, etc.

  • stang289


  • ChrisIowa

    I do not know the other states, but as for Iowa the pattern reflects the rise of Social Conservatives in the Republican Party. They did not begin their political activities until after 1980 when the Social Conservatives became more active to defeat the ERA. They then began working their way into the Republican Party, taking over the leadership positions, and in the 1990’s beginning to force non-social Conservatives out of the Party, generally alienating and marginalizing anyone who is not social conservative. While 40 percent of Iowans are social conservative, that is not sufficient to win state wide elections: it is sufficient to control one political party. It is also sufficient to win Congressional District and State house sized districts where they are concentrated.

    You cannot look at religious groups by denomination and see a pattern. There is a big difference, for example, between Missouri Synod Lutherans and ELCA Lutherans, the former stringent social conservative the latter not. Look to the distribution of Evangelical Religions (see the definition of evangelicals according to the US Association of Religious Studies, big SIC on that name ) to show the Republican/Democrat distribution in Iowa. The areas where the Evangelicals are strong are the areas where the Republican Party has done well in recent years.

    The distribution in Iowa reflects the relative strength of Evangelical Religions, and social conservatives.

    • Eric Miller

      This makes a LOT of sense, Chris!

    • Eric Miller

      Indeed, there’s a lower percentage of ELCA Lutherans in western Iowa and a higher percentage of Missouri Synod Lutherans than is the case in eastern Iowa. This is so even though the percentages of residents of the counties that are religious adherents are roughly the same in many cases (over 50 and, in some cases, 75%)!

    • Eric Miller

      Of course, this doesn’t work for the ELCA members in North Dakota! So why does it seem to in Iowa?

      • ChrisIowa

        I don’t think it is fruitful to concentrate on any one Religious denomination. No one particular religious denomination usually has enough of a political clout to affect elections over more than a small district. The ELCA-MoSynod contrast is just an obvious defect in the procedures of the above study, lumping religion by religion.

        I have found in my amateur statistical explorations that considering Evangelical Christians as a group is a fair indicator of the distribution of Social Conservatives. However, the survey data I have on the distribution of social conservatives is only to the detail of the then 5 congressional districts in Iowa, and the data on the distribution of the various congregations is county by county, so it is perhaps a stretch to apply the proportion of Evangelicals as a indicator to the county level, but it seems to make sense. IIRC, the Mo Synod is classified as Evangelical, the ELCA is not.

        A key to understanding Iowa Politics is the effect of Social Conservatives on the Republican Party in the primaries and conventions, and on the races in the general elections. I do not know if or how well that translates to other states.

        • Eric Miller

          Makes sense Chris (as usual). It’s also important to remember that even within a “moderate” denomination such as ELCA there are more and less conservative factions. I’m guessing the former cluster in the west part of the relevant area and that the east is a less religiously conservative group in general.

  • Eric Miller

    Factors listed so far:

    -Farm size and type (CSAs, etc.)

    -Dominance of mainstream vs. evangelical religion, also presence of ethnic Catholics

    -Presence of unionized workers in certain industries (e.g., mining); industrial downturn

    -Presence of ethnic populations from socialistic homelands (Scandinavians, etc.)

    -Historic Populist influence

    Have I missed any? What do folks think of the plausibility of these or do they all perhaps contribute to an extent?

    • ChrisIowa

      See my reply to Mr Miller under his reply to me elsewhere.

  • Adam Wright

    As a person that lives in Eastern Iowa (Cedar Rapids area), I have noticed this pocket of Democratic support in the Upper Mississippi River valley and have wondered about it. As a person that has been active in politics in this area, I have noticed a few trends: 1) The people in NE Iowa, SW Wisconsin, NW Illinois and SE Minnesota have a tendency to adhere to either Catholicism or mainstream protestant religion than people in other parts of these states. The inhabitants of these areas have ancestors that come from roots of Catholic or more liberal protestant traditions (there was a large amount of adherence of Unitarianism in SW Wisconsin for example, Universalism was big in Iowa, Congregationalism, Lutheranism, etc). 2) Many of the people in this area also have ancestry of either Scandinavia or New England Yankeedom, which has a tendency to trend more politically liberal. The recent book “American Nations” by Colin Woodward talks about this phenomenon of New English heritage in the Upper Midwest. 3) There is a strong heritage of being politically and civically involved in this part of the country. Iowa and Minnesota for example have some of the highest rates of voting in the United States, and this area also has higher than normal rates of volunteerism. 4) Lastly, there is also a strong heritage of importance of education in this part of the country. Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin have some of the highest rates of high school graduation, highest rates of library usage, and highest rates of literacy of any part of the United States.
    On the other hand, I have noticed that the “Upper Mississippi Valley Anomaly” only holds true in presidential election years. In the elections of 2010, Republican Governor Terry Branstad won many of the counties that are blue in Iowa. Same for Republican Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, he won many of the same counties in 2010 that went for Obama in 2008 and 2012. The same trend also held true for the 2012 recall election in Wisconsin, Walker won many counties that went blue during the presidential election.

  • Peter

    I don’t have a lot to add to this, but living in SE Minnesota, one of the biggest issues both here and right over the river in Wisconsin, has been Frac sand mining (note: not actually fracking, but just mining the sand used for it). I think that’s driven environmental issues more to the head of the debate than most other issues, so potentially if that’s a critical issue to a larger number of people who vote, that’ll get more people out to vote for Democrats. Again, I have no numbers or anything, but locally that’s been in the news a lot.