On Tuesday night, Paonia, Colo.’s non-television-owning crowd packed the local theater to watch the election. Over cans of PBR, bags of popcorn and the glow of our smartphones, we watched as announcers flicked through graphics of county-by-county results on their touch-screen TVs. Looking around the theater, you never would have known that our rural western Colorado county went hard red, voting for a Republican president, congressman, state representatives and county commissioner. Obama stickers were affixed to nearly every sweater or jacket, and cheering filled the room when the networks called Ohio for the president.
Groups like this one -- a collection of people who think alike -- increasingly reflect our country. “Because Americans are so mobile, even a mild preference for living with like-minded neighbors leads over time to severe segregation,” notes The Economist. The result of that mobility is fewer truly “swing” states, counties or towns. A recent New York Times opinion piece by Adam Liptak notes that “fewer states vote roughly like the country as a whole than in the past,” meaning that states are increasingly all red or blue, but rarely purple. And it’s been getting worse: In 1976, a quarter of America’s voters lived in a county where a presidential candidate won by a landslide margin. In 2004, it was nearly half. Bill Bishop, who 0utlined the phenomenon in his 2008 book "The Big Sort," said preliminary results from 2012 show that geographic polarization has increased even more, with 52 percent living in landslide counties.
Bishop, who now runs the online rural journalism outfit Daily Yonder, noted that in this election, the majority of Mitt Romney’s support came from rural and suburban areas, where as residents of cities larger than 50,000 snubbed him. In fact, Romney relied more upon rural supporters (59 percent) than previous Republican candidates John McCain (54 percent) and George Bush (57 percent). Not only are the red states getting redder and the blue states bluer, but the rural counties are increasingly red.
Take a look at these maps, created by Bishop, which show how, in 2008 (lower map), the majority of counties with landslide victories for Republicans (in grey) were rural. Compare that with map from 1976 (top map), where Democrats (in black) carried far more rural counties than they did in 2008 (parts of Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and Nevada, however, were Republican landslides both elections). Of course, many demographic shifts unrelated to politics, but likely having an impact on voting outcomes, have taken place in the decades since. Many economically stagnant rural areas have lost young people as they move to urban areas for jobs, and retirees, who are often conservative, have often to moved to rural counties. Flight from Southern California to Arizona and parts of the interior West is a classic example of this phenomenon.
What’s going on with Democrats in rural areas? In 2010, after Republicans picked up 63 seats in the house and six in the senate -- two thirds of which came from the nation’s 125 most rural districts -- a series of stories tried to offer some answers. In the South, Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a strategist for conservative Democrats, said, “it’s a cultural thing. Democrats just don’t get the culture down here.” A column in the National Journal noted that in many non-coastal states, the Democrats’ traditional voter base -- minorities, young people and college-educated whites, especially women -- just isn’t big enough to guarantee a majority. “To win, Democrats must run competitively among the rest of the white electorate, the college-educated white men, and noncollege white men and women.” In 2010, they didn’t. But this year they fared a little better, especially in the West. Jon Tester, the Democratic senator from Montana, won re-election, in part with support from Native Americans and the hook and bullet crowd. In North Dakota, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp beat her Republican challenger, too.
In Georgia, Democratic congressman John Barrow had the tough job of appealing to both his traditional Democratic base (in this case, African Americans) and winning over rural white conservatives. He did it by, among other things, getting the National Rifle Association to endorse him and running ads that played up his rural roots while appealing to both groups. As the Washington Post noted, “A recent ad in which Barrow says 'Long before I was born, my grandfather used this little Smith & Wesson here to help stop a lynching,” stood out because it appeared aimed at both.' On Tuesday, Barrow defeated his Republican challenger, winning 53.7 percent of the vote.
Another tactic is to work hard on issues that appeal to both liberals and conservatives, as Democratic commissioner Lynn Padgett has done in rural Ouray County, Colo. That county, like many in the state, is littered with abandoned mines and waste rock piles. Padgett, who won a second term on Tuesday, is a strong advocate for mine clean-up (and for re-mining old sites), an issue she chose because it would help both county and Colorado residents “realize that there were things we could agree on…We can all agree that this is an important issue and it needs to be resolved.”
This election has made me think a lot about polarization. You might think that a small group of liberals living in a predominantly Republican, rural county would be forced to interact more with those with opposing viewpoints. But, except for those involved with local politics or community organizing, which is one of the last bastions of non-partisanship, that just hasn’t been my experience, as the crowd in the theater on Tuesday night showed. We gravitate towards those who think like us, regardless of where we live.
Emily Guerin is an intern at High Country News.
Photo courtesy Flickr user michaelwrose.