Among the dumbest of many dumb things passed off as intelligent commentary on Election Night 2010 was the constant emphasis on color changes on the big national Congressional district maps that all of the major networks kept on prominent display. Fox, CNN, and ABC (and probably others, but I can't watch everything at once) are in agreement, apparently, that viewers are 5 years old and thus best able to absorb the events of the evening through brightly-colored graphics.
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Look! Look at the blue turn into red. That means things are changing!

Anderson Cooper in particular was heavy on the "Just look at all of this red, Wolf!" commentary. Where there was once some blue there is now just a "sea of red", a metaphor he managed to use dozens of times without making a joke about the Red Sea. What AC and the gang were so breathlessly reporting underscores near total ignorance of a rapidly increasing trend in both presidential and midterm election years.

This is a county map of the Illinois Senate race. Say it with me, guys: Just look at all that red!!

Bearing in mind that the race was actually pretty close (48%-46%, with the final difference around 100,000 votes), note that the Democrat Giannoulias won three counties in Illinois. Three. Out of 102. One of them – St. Clair County, home of East St. Louis, he won by 0.1% (about 200 votes). Another, Alexander County, had all of 2400 votes cast. And then of course he won Cook County…
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by 450,000 votes. 450,000!

Basically Giannoulias did what Democratic candidates always do in Illinois, and increasingly what Democratic candidates do in every state – win the major urban areas by so much that losing the entire rest of the state won't matter. Alexi G lost, of course, but the race was damn close. He came within a hair of winning and he lost 99 of 102 counties in the state.

This pattern reminds me of 2004, when John Kerry won a number of states in a similar fashion. In fact, nationwide Kerry won 583 counties…to Bush's 2,530. That is a margin of nearly five to one, yet the popular vote was within 2%. Among the 5 counties with the largest margin of victory for Kerry were San Francisco County, Washington D.C., and Bronx Borough. Bush's were Glasscock County, TX, Madison County, ID and other similarly fly-blown places.

In short, gaping at the color balance on the map is ridiculous because Republicans have proven beyond any doubt in the past 30 years that they are absolutely dominant in areas where no one lives. Huge, sparsely populated districts/counties/states are their cup of tea. And they win a ton of them. Democrats, on the other hand, make their victories count by winning – and winning big – where humans actually live. The level of intrastate polarization between rural and urban areas in modern elections is hard to overstate. It really boils down to city folk vs. country folk to a degree that might be unequaled in our history.

Yes, American elections have always been divided by some more-or-less clearly defined cleavage, be it North vs. South, Coasts vs. The Middle, or industry vs. agriculture. But in recent years, Obama's near-blowout in 2008 excepted, both parties have struggled to win votes beyond their rural and urban comfort zones. Even in the reddest Red State, Democrats do far better in urban areas. Even in the bluest Blue State, the rural areas are highly conservative. Elections end up turning on turnout differentials and the "swing" areas in the suburbs – which lean Republican far more often than not.

This raises an interesting question for Democratic strategists, and it is the primary ideological debate within the party at present. Does it make more sense to try to alter the message enough to achieve some nonzero level of success in rural areas, or should they just go all in on urban-focused liberal policy to maximize turnout in the cities? In other words, should they even try in rural areas or is it rational to say "Ah, fuck it, let's just try to win Cook County by 550,000 next time" given that a well-oiled turnout machine could feasibly accomplish the latter? Perhaps just as interesting is the question of which elections are "normal" and which are anomalous: the 2000-2004 years in which Democratic success was limited strictly to urban areas or 2006-2008, when they had success elsewhere?

Unfortunately the results in 2010 suggest the former as the status quo, with the 2006-2008 results attributable mostly to anti-Bush sentiment and, in 2008, the spectacularly bad presidential ticket on the GOP side. This year snapped the Democrats back to their pattern of winning only in the cities and trying to make that hold up against the big ocean of rural red that so enthralls the crack professionals inside the Beltway.

32 thoughts on “LOOK AT ALL THAT RED!”

  • Ah, the old "geography = population" shuffle. If only that were true, the GOP would never ever lose an election. I mean–Alaska! Look at it! Look at how HUGE it is! And it's all red! ALL of it! And Montana! And Wyoming! And Texas! They're so massively, awesomely BIG, all of them! And New York is just a *dot* on the map! And pitiful little L.A., Chicago, Philadelphia–why, if you squint, you can bare *see* them! They don't count.

    So clearly, we are a right-wing fundamentalist/ready-for-the-compound nation! Because empty acreage votes count just as much as 1-million-citizens-per-square-foot votes.

    Democrats could so utterly and completely own this country if they told the Sons (and Daughters) of the Soil to go piss up a rope, and just served birthday-cake slices of pork to the urbs/suburbs. Yet somehow they think that with just a *little* more of push, they can get the militia-men in the wilds of Idaho to come out from their Apocalypse Shelters and go blue. (Head hits desk with a solid thunk.) Why must the party with which I generally agree prove to be so profoundly stupid, especially since it has to force me to re-examine my principles, given that they're espoused/represented by idiots?

  • On the upside, the Democrats just fucking OWN the triangle between Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit.

    Look at all that blue! WIN!

  • J Dryden:

    "Democrats could so utterly and completely own this country if they … just served birthday-cake slices of pork to the urbs/suburbs."

    "Why must the party with which I generally agree prove to be so profoundly stupid, especially since it has to force me to re-examine my principles, given that they're espoused/represented by idiots?"

    A. Your principles include winning votes by unbridled pork-barrel spending?

    B. Whether you agree with it or not, there is a large sentiment in this country opposed to high government spending, and that's costing the Democrats votes. The Democrats refuse to acknowledge that, and there's your stupidity.

  • It seems to me that Republicans were faced with a similar question, and they went with "Ah, Fuck it, let's just tack to the right and try to win rural areas by a wider margin." Their turnout machine may have some differences, but in terms of messaging, the consequences of this decision essentially mirror those of the Democrats.

  • " Cut government spending " and " I'm for smaller government " sound like good concepts, but are completely divorced from the reality of the day- to- day running of a modern superpower. In this age of rapid technological change, globalized financial systems, and constant war, an ever growing bureacracy is needed and government spending in the U.S. is only going to go one way- up. You aren't going to balance the budget by privatizing Social Security, cutting the public education budget ( again), or eliminating food stamps. Military spending has to be controlled and the Pentagon told to exercise a little ( well, a lot) of fiscal discipline. And have the upper 2% of the wealthiest citizens and their corporations pay their fair share instead of getting a free ride at our expense.

  • There's a lot to be said for the proposition that the nature of the Senate is ruinous to our ability to govern effectively, because it enshrines the geography/population muddle. Add to that basic structural fact the apparent new commandment–60 votes is a majority–and you end up with most of the explanation for the p.r. disaster that is the Health Care Reform Act. Then toss in salesmanship genius in the form of non-stop right wing radio (Ailes and Murdoch would hire Lord Haw-Haw if he were available), and you get the brown-shirt answer to Town Hall efforts to explain the damn Health Care Reform Act, which cements the idea that the Democrats and Obama are dangerous radicals. The corporate power base is taking back "their" country, if they ever really lost it. Maybe the deal was, let the "boy" get our shit on his uniform and then call him a Kenyan shit–it'll work every time.

  • The Man, The Myth says:

    Being a person from one of these "red" states, I have long thought this dialogue was a load of crap. While it is true that urbanites are far more likely to vote for the Ds than rural people – I am occasionally surprised by the number of progressive people around me. Than again, this is Missoula, part of the urban area of Montana… and home to a "liberal arts" University. Maybe I'm full of crap.

  • Monkey Business says:

    If I were campaigning for anything on a state or national level, I'd never set foot outside urban/suburban areas and non-urban college towns. Student populations of major universities can drastically swing results in areas that would otherwise be conservative, and there's zero reason to campaign for a few hundred votes in Bumfuck County when you can be campaigning for a few thousand votes in Major City County.

    Basically, if you don't live in a city, you don't matter.

  • I think the focus on winning counties is also less than helpful. Democrats (and Republicans) are getting some votes in the other guy's territory. All those Red counties registered some Blue votes, and the Blue votes add to the total.

  • Every time I see this "Red state/Blue state" bullshit, I have to laugh. Here you have the party that has spent 50some years fighting the filthy, fucking Red Commies now using red as their color!! It's like they were jealous of the power and control the commies had.

    "Why must the party with which I generally agree prove to be so profoundly stupid, especially since it has to force me to re-examine my principles, given that they're espoused/represented by idiots?"
    I have pretty much given up on the Dems. In future elections I think I'll vote for Greens instead of Blue. If they want my vote, they'll have to fucking earn it!!
    And it isn't the Dems spending that is the problem, the elephant left a huge stinking, steaming pile of shit and now the Reich-WingNut propaganda machine has convinced most of public that the ones trying to clean up the mess are the ones to blame!!

  • Isn't there a difference between voters who live in the cities and voters who live in the suburbs? Look at the map Ed provided us: yes, Cook County went blue, but all the counties around it are red. While they're not as highly populated as Cook County, but they're not exactly fly-blown nowheresvilles either. The Metro Areas around Atlanta and Orlando are the same way.

    It seems to me that the battleground that the Democrats are missing is in the suburbs. They've got the urban centers locked up and the GOP's got the rural voters, but I can't believe that suburbs are almost predominately red, too.

  • Urban vs. rural seems to be the rules in elections these days, but why?

    My family is from the northern end of John Boehner's district which tends to vote Republican as if they're voting for continued access to air. Why they do this isn't difficult to understand.

    1. They don't understand or care to understand what goes on in cities, which they tend to view as cesspools of crime, immorality, and people who don't think like they do.

    2. They watch, listen to, and read news from small media outlets.

    3. They are very sociable with one another on a level city folk cannot comprehend. If I mention my father's name back home, people know my name, my grandparents, my cousins, who died recently in my family, and how everyone else is doing. They will probably invite me to dinner and ask if I have a place to stay while I'm in time

    4. There is extremely little diversity and low levels of education because the educated ones tend to leave.

    5. They believe that their way of life makes them particularly virtuous.

    So you have an insulated community of God-fearing people who constantly reinforce each other's beliefs with no more validation than the local right-wing radio personality's opinion.

    They are so unaware of what goes on outside of their communities that they are surprised when they find out my house doesn't have bars on the windows. They also believe that "inner-city blacks" might drive up from Dayton to go on a crime spree. I have been told "up here, we love our country", which was ironic considering that I'm a veteran and this person is not.

  • My in-laws live in a very rural part of southern Ohio (Vinton County), which is basically Appalachia.

    Pretty much all of the are Democrats.

  • A friend who lives a few precincts over from me in Chicago voted after work this year. He got there a little at 6PM, in the last hour of voting. His precinct has roughly 3,000 registered voters. He was only the 237th voter that deigned to show up. Obviously this is just anecdotal but if this is typical of the city then Mark Kirk should be sending thank you notes to Chicago Democratic voters that stayed home.

  • Baltimore City and Baltimore County are counted separately. Baltimore City is technically its own county, not part of Baltimore County. Very confusing. St. Louis is the same way…the suburban part of the counties basically decided to secede from the cities in the early 1980s.

  • I enjoy painting my toe nails with alternating shades of red and blue while perched on my old rocking chair situated on the front porch of my ole country store that sells dinosaur saddles and copies of A Short History of the World Since its Inception 4000 Years Ago. It's gratifying to be a small component in this forward looking movement that is the modern GOP. Palin in 2012!

  • I'm Just a Bill says:

    Oh & the local car repair guy who drives over from Virginia to work in Maryland – wouldn't live here because of the Communists…

  • Yes. We The People hate "government spending." So we're bringing back the assholes who wrecked the economy, put us in debt, and launched two hopeless, unbelievably expensive wars. Makes sense. As long as we can expect the pesky "pork," "earmarks," and other barnyard-related line-items to disappear, we should be back in the black in a heartbeat.

  • @Jimcat – "Whether you agree with it or not, there is a large sentiment in this country opposed to high government spending,"

    We have them down here, too! We call them "Stupid People".

  • The golden key that y'all need is a Constitutional Amendment providing for the direct election of the POTUS and VP. Get rid of that stupid College invented by those old, slave holdin' dead White guys. Ms Hillary was pushing it awhile back.

    Then you can tell everyone from Georgia to Kansas to Idaho to kiss your ass and pay up sucka, because all the Blue votes can be wadded together for your 1000 year Blue Reich.


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