Partisanship and Geography

PARTISANSHIP AND GEOGRAPHY….Via The Campaign Desk, the Austin American-Statesman has an interesting two-part story about increasing partisanship in America. Their analysis points to geographic clustering as one of the culprits:

In 1976, when Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford by only two percentage points, 26.8 percent of American voters lived in counties with landslide presidential election results, where one party had 60 percent or more of the vote.

Twenty-four years and six presidential elections later, when George Bush and Al Gore were virtually tied nationally, 45.3 percent of voters lived in a landslide county. And now the nation enters a new election year divided both ideologically and geographically in ways few can remember.

The second part of the story suggests that this has an amplifying effect on extreme partisanship:

Groups also become more extreme, social scientists say, because of the most basic of human emotions: People want to be liked and accepted.

….[Robert] Baron describes a subtle competition within groups, as individuals seek to gain favor by being slightly more Republican (or Democratic or Christian) than the group average, setting off a snowball of opinion that gradually moves the group to more extreme positions.

“It’s hard to be a moderate Republican or a moderate Democrat, in other words,” Baron said.

Well, I can attest to that. As groups become more partisan, it becomes harder and harder to hold independent positions and still remain part of the group. Even small heresies risk getting you shunned by your fellows.

The AAS analysis, of course, can’t tease apart whether this geographical clustering is caused by increasing partisanship or is a result of it, but strongly suggests it’s both. Likeminded people have a tendency to move to places where they’re comfortable, and at the same time communities tend to reinforce their dominant beliefs in their residents.

As it turns out, I have several quibbles and doubts about some of the story’s conclusions, but it’s nonetheless worth reading. If America’s partisanship is truly becoming ever more hardened and ever more institutionalized, that’s bad news.

POSTSCRIPT: One interesting note. Whenever I read a story like this I immediately wonder if it takes into account the Great Southern Shift. That is, is there really a national change, or is the entire change actually accounted for by the fact that party loyalty in the South has changed dramatically over the past several decades?

This, however, turns out to be a case where changes in the South probably minimize the overall effect. In the 60s and before, nearly every county in the South was probably a landslide county (for the Democrats), whereas today, as party loyalties continue their shift toward the Republicans, the number of such counties has almost certainly decreased. So if you remove the South, the increase in landslide counties is probably actually even larger than the AAS analysis suggests.


UPDATE: More landslide counties implies more landslide states, so it’s not surprising that landslide states have also been on the increase. And as Tom Schaller pointed out on Sunday in the Washington Post, that means we might have electoral college trouble again in 2004….