Politics & Elections: The Divide is Real

A look at the voters in year's primaries reveal that the number of republicans and democrats who voted is similar, but their distribution geographically is not. And that could explain a lot.

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Where do Democrats and Republicans live?

That question has been at the center of this year’s campaign. (BTW, be sure to vote next Tuesday.) Journalists have looked for answers in the “heart of Trump country,” which more often than not turned out to be a small town in West Virginia or Ohio.

Last week, reporter Alec MacGillis took a different approach. He wrote that Democrats had packed themselves into the nation’s largest cities — so no wonder the party had a hard time winning in less populous places. And no wonder Rs and Ds have such a hard time understanding one another.

We’ll know more about the distribution of Republicans and Democrats come Election Day, but in the dog days of this campaign, let’s take one more look at our geographically fractured nation. And I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by telling you that MacGillis is right.

We begin with the party primaries. Both were hard fought affairs and both brought out about the same number of voters. (Also, remember that primary voters are the hard core of a political party.) In the Republican primary, 31 million people voted; 30.3 million cast ballots in the Democratic primary.

The number of voters was close, but the distribution was significantly different.

Just about 85 percent of the U.S. population lives in a metropolitan county; 15 percent live in a rural county. In the Democratic primary, however, only 10.8 percent of voters came from a rural county. In the Republican primary, 18.5 percent of voters lived in a rural county.

Remember, both parties had about the same number of voters in the primary. But 5.7 million Republicans voted in rural counties compared to 3.3 million Democrats.

MacGillis argues that Democrats are living in the most urban, most densely populated counties, and the vote from this year’s primary elections certainly bears this out. The U.S. Department of Agriculture divides counties into nine categories, from those in cities of a million or more people to the country’s least populous places.

Nearly two out of every three Democratic primary voters lived in a metropolitan area of a million or more. Democrats pulled 18.9 million voters in these large metro counties; Republicans had 14.6 million voters in these counties.

Here’s another way of looking at the Democratic concentration in the big cities: 54.7 percent of all Americans live in these large counties. However, 62.4 percent of Democratic primary voters live in these counties. Among Republican primary voters, only 47.2 percent lived in metros of a million or more.

We’ve seen this pattern before. In the 2014 Congressional elections, Democrats had a majority of votes in only the first category on the USDA scale, in counties of metro areas of a million or more. Democrats lost – and lost badly – in every other category.

No big surprise. That’s where Democrats live, just as MacGillis wrote.

Postscript Earlier, Tim Marema and I examined the primary vote to see if Republican Donald Trump was truly a product of rural voters. It turned out that Trump got a slightly higher percentage of the vote in rural counties in the Republican primaries, but not much. Trump’s rural advantage in the primary elections was about 100,000 votes out of the 14 million he won.

How about Clinton in her long battle with Sen. Bernie Sanders? Did her voters have a geographic bias?

Clinton won 56.1 percent of the vote in metro counties, but saw her take of the Democratic primary vote drop in rural counties. In counties with small towns (between 10,000 and 50,000 people), Clinton won 48.6 percent of the vote. In rural counties (those with no town bigger than 10,000), she won 52.5 percent of the vote.

Sanders did best in micropolitan counties, where he won 48.1 percent of the vote.

Clinton did best in metro areas of a million or more people – the heart of the Democratic Party – where she won 57.5 percent of the primary vote.

 

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