Electoral Polarization

In my previous post, I noted that almost all the counties President Barack Obama won have become more Democratic since 1992, while almost all the counties Senator John McCain won have become more Republican since 1992.

In fact, comparing maps of the 2008 presidential election and the county changes from 1992 indicates a striking correlation.

Here is the 2008 presidential election:

NYT Image

Here are the changes from the 1992 presidential election:

NYT Image

On the one hand, all this is somewhat intuitive. If a Democratic candidate does well in a specific place, he or she probably improved on a previous Democrat’s performance there – and vice versa. Moreover, these maps do not imply that all blue regions became more Democratic (nor the opposite); rural Appalachia, in the most famous instance, has trended sharply Republican, while much of suburban American has gone in the opposite direction.

On the other hand, this phenomenon does not constitute a mathematical rule. If a Democratic candidate wins a county, that doesn’t necessarily imply that he or she improved upon a previous Democrat’s performance. He or she could have done worse but still won; the previous Democrat might have overperformed, or the Republican might have encouraged cross-over voting.

Yet by and large, this has not been the case. Obama practically always outperformed former President Bill Clinton in today’s Democratic counties. Mr. McCain practically always overperformed former President George H. W. Bush in today’s Republican counties.

Taking a look at selected states provides a powerful illustration of this fact.

Here is California:

Modified NYT Images

Here is Colorado:

Modified NYT Images

All this implies something rather disturbing: electoral polarization has been steadily increasing. Obama only improved on Mr. Clinton’s performance in the counties Obama won. McCain only improved on Mr. Bush’s performance in the counties McCain won. The almost total lack of cross-over gain suggests that each party has come to depend on deepening their base, rather than widening the electorate and appealing to moderates.

That America is getting more divided has, of course, been known for a fairly long time. In some ways the maps exaggerate the polarization: 1992 Clinton appealed to many Republicans, while Obama’s strength lay amongst the Democratic base. Then there is the Ross Perot effect, which lowered margins in both party strongholds (e.g. New England, the Plains states).

But perhaps a bit of exaggeration is needed. Polarization has rarely been good for any country, and its increasing prevalence bodes poorly for the future of the United States. A map like this provides a potent illustration of polarization in action; indeed, I have never encountered a more striking image of its increase. Such a picture might do us some good.

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5 Responses to Electoral Polarization

  1. John Smith says:

    This reflects geographical, not individual polarization. That is, it does not reflect that individual voters are more deeply wed to their party (a vote is a vote, whether its a strong or a weakly-held, hold-your-nose vote). Instead it reflects that individual counties are attracting more people to vote in one way or another. That is, people who live in county X that wins a seat for party A are more likely to vote next time for party A. Also, people who vote for Party A might be more likely to move to county X that voted A. As such, this does NOT reflect increasing polarization of voters; is reflects political ideology being attached to certain regions. Democrats might be fleeing the Appalachians to the cities, and vice versa.

    • inoljt says:

      Well…it is a bad thing when people only live together with other people who agree with them. Diversity of opinion is generally good (not always, but generally).

  2. Amar Rao says:

    It boils down to this: Between 1992 and 2008, the cities and suburbs were rapidly growing, and in so doing were becoming more ethnically diverse and bluer; meanwhile the rural areas were slowly declining, and their white working-class population was either remaining, or becoming, more and more staunchly Republican (redder).
    These are the dividing lines in this country, and they are apparent to everybody.

  3. Joe from NC says:

    This polarization has had me concerned for the last few years. Arguably the country was more ideologically polarized between 1965 and 1973, but this was less partisan than it is now because there were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats then. But because the polarization is more partisan now, it is worse because parties have money and organization, the polarization can cause more damage.
    If this leads to another civil war, it will be much worse than the first. The first was based on region, so the battle lines were more clearly drawn. A second American civil war would probably be more like the Spanish civil war, with both sides having regions of strength, but with the war being fought everywhere and with more violence between civilian supporters of both sides.

    • inoljt says:

      Yeah, to me it’s very concerning. I mean, look at Bill Clinton – he came to power as a moderate Southern Democrat. Yet the system turned him into an incredibly polarizing figure in his day, even though his presidency and his identity was quite moderate.

      You’re seeing it now with Obama too, sadly.

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