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)