Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Geography of the 2008 Election

I've been thinking about the election a lot (of course) and which states can now be considered blue states, red states or purple states. It's a little bit more difficult than just looking at the 2008 election and seeing which states went for Barack Obama and which states went for John McCain. A lot of the reason why Barack Obama won was because he was the superior candidate, and that his opponent's party was suffering from a wave of unpopularity.

The map below shows the winner of each county in America and also the size of their victories, with a 15% or greater margin of victory shown in the fullest colors.


The 2008 county-by-county map shows all of our entrenched American voting patterns: the west coast and the northeast all predominantly Democratic, the south and the central plains all predominantly Republican, red rural counties (except in the upper midwest), blue urban counties, a Democratic black belt in the south, etc. The map does seem to show more blue places than one would think, in particular in Montana, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. But this bluification goes deeper than just the counties that voted for Barack Obama.


When compared to the margins in 2004, almost every county delivered more votes for the Democratic candidate in 2008, even though most of those counties were still won by the Republican. This blue shift was obviously a very important reason why Barack Obama won. All he had to do was decrease the Republican margin of victory in rural areas and hold onto the usual overwhelming number of votes from urban areas. But the 2004-2008 blue shift doesn't necessarily tell a larger story of a shifting electorate. It just shows Barack Obama was a much better candidate than John Kerry. A better but still imperfect comparison would be to compare this election where a charismatic Democrat beat a war-crippled Republican senator to the last one in which a charismatic Democrat beat a war-crippled Republican senator: 1996, when Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole


This map is more balanced than the one for 2004, as it should be since Democrats won both elections. But one of the more amazing things about this map is that it looks remarkably similar to the 2008 county-by-county election map shown at the top. If there were no demographic or idealogical shift since the last time a Democrat won the presidency, then one would expect that most of the map would be in pale colors with some bright colors distributed in a random geographic pattern. This is not the case. The already-red South has gotten redder, the already-blue West Coast has gotten bluer, Democratic northern New Mexico and Colorado's Front Range are bluer, Republican Appalachia is redder. Democrats have increased their strangleholds on urban counties, Republicans have increased their strangleholds on rural counties.

If there is a demographic shift, it is not towards a more diverse and open society. It is towards entrenchment into communities with like-minded individuals. I mean, think about it. How many people you know voted for John McCain? No matter where you live, it probably wasn't 46%, which was his national popular vote share. It was probably somewhere between 0% and 10% (I'm assuming the fact that you're reading this indicates you are probably a Democrat).

This is the viewpoint of Bill Bishop on, who is author of a book called The Big Sort about how we tend to migrate to communities full of people who look like us and think like us. I would agree with him. Is this better for our society? Probably not. But I'm not about to move away from my house in my neighborhood full of tall trees, older houses and Obama yard signs. I feel comfortable here.


Other interesting shifts from 1996 to 2008:

- Election-specific trends for this map would indicate that logically Arkansas and Arizona should be redder while Kansas and Illinois should be bluer since the specific candidates from Arkansas and Kansas (Clinton and Dole) are not present in 2008, while the candidates from Arizona and Illinois (McCain and Obama) are. Arkansas and Arizona are certainly redder, but Illinois and Kansas are not definitively bluer except in the Chicago region and the more urban areas of Kansas, as well as in Russell, KS, where the highway sign proudly displays "Home of Bob Dole". Russell county in 1996 went for Dole by a margin of 62%. That softened to a margin for McCain in 2008 of merely 54%.

- All but one county in Oklahoma has gotten any more Democratic since 1996. The one county is Oklahoma City's county, which moved from a Republican margin of 18% to a Republican margin of 17%. Only three other counties have increased the Republican margin by any less than 15%: Lawton, Norman and Tulsa. Everywhere else is a red explosion.

- Rio Arriba County has been passed by Taos County as the most Democratic county in New Mexico. This has long been expected due to Taos's liberal trinity: hispanics, indians and hippies.

- New York City and San Francisco have gotten even more Democratic than they were 12 years ago.

- The Southern Michigan vs Northern Michigan divide is more apparent than it was 12 years ago.

- The blue border counties of Texas have not gotten bluer over the last 12 years. But Austin, Dallas and Houston sure have.

- If you want to see how a blue area becomes red, shift the slider on from the 1992 election to the 2008 election and keep your eye on Louisiana, Arkansas, east Texas, east Oklahoma and southeast Missouri. It looks like water draining out of the Mississippi Valley.

(All fantastic maps from


Anonymous said...

This is really interesting. So, on a social level, what do you think is happening? Are people moving to where they're more comfortable (just like I kind of want to move to California)? Or are they actually changing their minds?

-Alyson, who has once again forgotten her blogger account

Steve said...

There are probably way too many reasons why, and most of them only indirectly have to do with political ideology.

It's my copout late night answer, I know.