The Two Americas Duke it Out in the Democratic Primaries

April 24, 2008

Image: Chad Crow, Wall Street Journal

The Pennsylvania Primary: Urban vs. Rural Once Again?

The results from Pennsylvania are in, and its déjà vu all over again. In round 12 of what looks to be a 15 round split-decision boxing match, Obama did well enough to maintain his substantial lead over Hillary Clinton in the delegate count, while Clinton did well enough to support her argument for going forward into the next primary battles (North Carolina and Indiana in two weeks). The closely divided battle grinds on, and except for more bloodied lips all around, not much looks different than it did six weeks ago , after Ohio and Texas.

And something else in Pennsylvania looks very much like it did six weeks ago, in Ohio and Texas—the geographic breakdown of the vote itself. A stark and undeniable division has emerged among Democratic primary voters, and although Obama likes to talk about how we are “one America,” more united than divided, that’s not how America seems to be voting. In fact, Americans are clearly divided in their voting. There are a variety of divisions that could be highlighted: white versus black, young versus old, college-educated versus not. But one of the most significant divisions of all is the geographic division vividly evident in a large number of Democratic primary states—urban versus rural.

Barack himself commented on this very division in his famous “bitter” Americans commentary of a few weeks ago. Speaking at a fund-raiser in big-city San Francisco, Obama was asked why he had such trouble in rural areas like small-town Pennsyvania. Obama’s reply and its fallout dominated the media for a full week:

“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration…And it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”

Whether Obama was right or wrong in his exploration of the motivations of small town voters, he was certainly correct to suggest that something is very different about the values and voting habits of small town and big-city America. Those very real differences show up in state after state, as Obama and Clinton capture almost equal shares of a fundamentally polarized Democratic electorate.

The fact is that very few counties in the Pennsylvania primary were closely contested. The counties tended to be blowouts for either Obama or Clinton—with urban Philadelphia going for Obama 65%-35%, while rural counties averaged a mirror-image 66%-34% Clinton edge. Michael Barone of Newsweek notes that

“In 53 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties there was more than a 20 percentage point difference between the two candidates. In only one county — Montgomery, a suburban county northeast of Philadelphia — were the two candidates within five points of one another. Nearly 60 percent of Pennsylvania’s Democratic voters lived in counties where Obama and Clinton were separated by more than 20 percentage points.”

Urban Pittsburgh did indeed vote for Clinton, but in general in the this year’s primaries, the more urban a county, the more pro-Obama it has voted, while rural areas have been Clinton’s base. “The farther you travel from large cities, the greater the vote for the New York senator,” Bill Bishop writes in the Daily Yonder. “The Democratic Party may be divided between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but it’s divided rural and urban, too.”

The Urban-Rural Divide in Election Maps

In addition to Pennsylvania, the urban-rural polarized pattern has replayed in vital states like Ohio, Missouri, and Texas. The rural-urban divide is abundantly evident with a look at some election maps (taken from CNN’s election center).

Consider this map of Pennsylvania election results. Obama’s vote is concentrated in the urban Philadelphia area, while Hillary sweeps the rest of mostly rural Pennsylvania.

The results were similar in Texas, where Obama won urban centers like Austin, Dallas and Houston, but lost across vast rural swaths.

In Ohio Obama won the four large urban centers of Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati, while Clinton swept the small towns and farmlands.

And consider this map of Missouri that I produced myself. In this map, the height of the blue bars indicates the size of the vote victory in each county. The blue bars are Obama counties, and red are Clinton. Though Obama narrowly won Missouri, he only did so by racking up a massive vote victory in urban St. Louis, while Clinton won much smaller vote victories across the rest of mostly small town Missouri.

A Historic Divide Evident in the 2004 Presidential Election

This pattern isn’t always the case (for example, Obama won Colorado, including many of its rural counties quite handily,while Clinton has won some urban centers like Pittsburgh), but it is generally and increasingly true. The pattern is hardly surprising to observers of American politics—the rural/urban divide goes back to the Federalist/Jeffersonian division of the early 1800s, it was evident in the Jacksonian revolution in the 1830s, it was the centerpiece of the great WJ Bryan/Warren Harding battles of the 1890s, and it was replayed recently in the Bush/Kerry election of 2004.

Consider for example, the urban-rural divide as displayed in these maps of the Bush Kerry election. This first map shows popular vote margins, with the larger margins shown with larger bars. Blue bars are for Democrats, red are for Republicans. The map reveals just how concentrated the Democratic vote is in large urban centers, and how dominant the Republicans are across rural America.

The USA today map below reveals the same pattern, but displayed a bit differently.

The Two Americas: Real and Enduring

When a political division is replayed throughout 200 years of American history, when voters line up in landslide proportions behind different candidates based on their urban or rural place of residence, when dozens of political election maps reveal clear and bright demographic dividing lines—it is no stretch to say that there really are “two Americas.”

Of course, this divide is about much more than simple rural or urban geography—it is about an entire host of values and demographics that go with this divide. Rural voters in fact tend to be different in a wide variety of ways than urban voters (for example, rural voters are more likely to attend church regularly, to be married with children, to be white, and to own a gun). Political observer Michael Barone has argued that these differences have profound and enduring political consequences, which is why the Democratic primary is a re-staging of America’s long “tribal war” between “Jacksonians” (who tend to be more rural, less educated and less affluent) and the “Academics” (who tend to be urban, college-educated, and more affluent).

As another angle on the two Americas, consider this chart that I put together based on U.S. Census data and polling data from the Zogby polling company. It shows the very real differences between “red states” (which tend to be more rural and to vote Republican) and the “blue states” (which tend to be more urban and to vote Democrat).

There really are “two Americas.” These two nations fight it out every year in presidential elections, with the familiar results of Republicans tending to win over heartland rural America and Democratic dominating the cities and the coasts. This time around, the two nations are duking it out for control of the Democratic party itself. Two great tribes, closely divided, are lining up behind two historic candidates, each of titanic strength and locked in a kind of death grip, neither able to fully claim title to the soul of a divided nation. “We are all one nation,” Obama tells us over and over, but for all his talk of something new, something united, and something beyond the political divisions of old, the electoral fracture lines growing up around him look hauntingly familiar.