At the turn of the 20th century, America’s major dividing lines were found along regional and geographic boundaries. The South was solidly Democratic and the majority of the rest of the nation Republican. Today, those dividing lines are gone. The biggest dividing lines are not gender, race, class or geography but urban vs. rural and suburban vs. countryside.
Unsurprisingly, as a result, the divide is not just over where people live (red or blue state) but how people live; in spread out, open communities or urban, dense corridors. In diverse, culturally rich areas or small ethnically homogenous communities. The list goes on. This suggests that people do not make cities liberal, cities do. Density, an embrace of urban culture and living all have turned these places various shades of blue. The 2012 Presidential map encapsulates this divide nicely.
Virtually every major city went for Barack Obama in 2012. The largest cities that went for Mitt Romney were Salt Lake City and Phoenix followed by the much smaller cities of Wichita, Lincoln and Boise. But Romney’s margins in these urban areas were far outweighed by Obama’s margins in much larger cities. By themselves, the cities of LA and Chicago gave Obama a bigger vote margin than every city (50,000 and more) that voted for Romney.
Encapsulating just how America’s divide has moved beyond state boundaries is the state of Texas. In the Lone Star State, Mitt Romney won by 15 percent. Yet, he lost the 4 largest metro areas: Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio. In other states Romney carried: Atlanta, Little Rock, Birmingham, Tuscon and Charleston, all these cities all went blue. In the swing states of Nevada, Colorado and Virginia, it is safe to say without Denver, DC or Las Vegas all three states would be red.
Because winning a state’s electoral votes only require a simple majority, a single city can change the entire game. In Ohio and Florida, if Romney had managed to carry a single major city he would have shifted his narrow losses into sizeable victories in both. In Michigan, Obama’s entire margin can be chalked up to his victory in metro Detroit and a narrow scrap of Flint. The rest of the state was fairly red.
This divide has been gradually occurring for decades. Starting in 1984, cities have been becoming bluer and rural areas redder. The suburbs are not battlegrounds. Rather they mirror the urban/rural divide with more spaced out suburbs deep red and urban, dense suburbs starkly blue. The only time this trend has been really upset was Bush’s reelection in 2004 where he carried a majority of the nation’s fastest growing counties. Since that time the divide has only grown worse.
One could argue the election of Bush (in 2000) and Obama in 2012 is starkly different in results and states won/lost. Yet, if you look at the counties map you find their coalitions were the exact opposite. Republicans have been bolstered by strength in the Midwest, South, and Sun Belt while Democrats have grown stronger on the coasts and maintained strength in the Rust Belt. Indeed, the battle is not really over states but rather over a select few counties in key states that decide elections.
Unsurprisingly, Democrats have benefited from this growth in the strength of cities electoral voting power. Formerly red states have turned purple or blue even as rural areas have become redder. In recent years, in many states, major urban bastions have been able to pass major legislation via initiative. Gay marriage, before it was legalized by the courts, was passed in several states by the voting power of major cities. Even in red states such as Missouri, urban bastions like St. Louis and Kansas City have helped pass liberal goals.
Consider state election results after the 2012 election. After the election, more than half of the 50 states allowed gay marriage, assisted suicide or marijuana use. In several red states Obamacare was banned. Ironically, after the election several million people lived in a state that banned Obamacare but would not allow you to marry the person you love.
This is ultimately the beauty of federalism. Even in deeply red or blue states there seems to be a countervailing force to the tendencies of one group to enforce their vision of life on everybody else. Just look at how the growth of cities has not all been positive for Democrats.
In local and Congressional elections, Democrats have seen their power limited as more and more liberal voters concentrate themselves in cities with few city council seats and mayors. While the power of these places ensures the party safe seats in Congress and legislatures it makes it that much harder for the party to reach out to suburban and rural voters. As a result, the party’s bench is limited in state and Congressional elections and in many cases the party’s candidates are painted as too liberal for a statewide electorate. Democrats running for constitutional offices often define themselves by what they differ from their national party on than their GOP opponents.
This has helped allow Republicans to gain solid majorities even in blue states (Wisconsin and Michigan) and many purple states. It is thus easy for the Republicans to draw Democrats into packed, safe blue seats and ensure GOP voters are more spread out. Additionally, while Democrats and liberals can celebrate that they can win electoral votes and drive initiatives to the Left their power is limited in midterm and local elections.
Take the case of California. On the surface the state is deeply blue. Republicans have not won a Congressional seat there since 2004 and control a mere 14 of the state’s 53 Congressional districts today. The party does not control a single statewide office and is struggling not to be completely locked out of relevance in the legislature. But, Republicans actually control more city council seats and a majority of county commissioner and mayoral offices than their Democratic counterparts. At the local level, Republicans actually can exercise decent power even if they consistently lose LA by 50 points in statewide races.
Democrats will probably argue they gladly accept these trade offs. After-all, a President can set the national agenda, issue EOs, appoint Supreme Court justices and the like while no local official has such power. But, most of the laws passed that directly impact your life come from state and local officials. As a result, Republicans fueled by rural and suburban voters actually can counteract the power of city voters. That’s the beauty of federalism and the continuing result of America’s increasing county divide.