The Bones of Politics

Every once in awhile something new comes along that shakes my understanding of the underlying realities of politics. The latest is Colin Woodard’s stuff on the Virginia election. The conventional wisdom is that the expanding DC suburbs in Northern Virginia are screwing up the traditional political landscape by tilting the country blue, so I’ve been a bit skeptical that Colin’s American Nations thesis is really what’s at work.

But today, Colin took a look at the data, and he’s got the goods:

I asked one of my student research collaborators — Miami University of Ohio’s Nicollette Staton – to run the results both by region and by the National Center for Health Statistics’ six-tiered urban-to-rural spectrum, which categorizes every U.S. county by level of urbanity, from those in major metropolitan regions (1) to the completely rural (6). The results were even starker than I expected.

In Greater Appalachia, Cuccinelli won every category of county, from the very largest cities in the section (where he won 49.1 to 45.7) to counties without so much as a big town (62.8 to 30.8). In every category save the largest (category 2 in Greater Appalachia), he won by more than 20 points.

By contrast, in Tidewater, McAuliffe won by large margins in counties large and small, taking five of the six categories. In the biggest cities he won 56.3 to 37.3. In the most rural counties he won by a convincing 51.0 to 41.1.

Sort of like how the great 20th century crime wave and Kevin Drum’s lead hypothesis makes me question just how much it is even possible to understand about current events until long after the fact, Colin’s work has really got me questioning my fundamental assumptions about politics. If urban-versus-rural is not as powerful a frame as everyone thinks—and it’s basically a background assumption at this point—then that is important news indeed.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.