Election 2004  
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Blue Islands, Red Seas

The real great divide in American politics is not between red and blue states, but between urban and rural voters.
 
 
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We’ve all seen the map of the 2004 presidential election, with the "three coasts" of blue states parted by the red sea of conservatism. That’s fine and good if we simply want to understand electoral politics on a state-by-state basis. Trouble is, that’s not an accurate way to understand what happened on Nov. 2.

The real great American divide is not between the red and blue states, it is between urban and rural America.

Although the popular vote was just a three-point spread, the acreage of the counties that supported Kerry were just a fraction of the landscape. According to USA Today, the counties voting Democratic encompassed 511,700 square miles, a mere 17 percent of the country, while the less densely populated Bush Country dominates from coast to coast. (Alaska was not included in the USA Today data).

Almost every state — red or blue — had urban areas that voted overwhelming for Kerry as well as counties (in which the livestock frequently outnumber the people) that voted for Bush by a 3-1 margin. For example, in John Ashcroft's home state of Missouri, Bush received 54 percent of the vote, making it a red state. But Kerry won the city of St. Louis by an overwhelming 81 percent; he also won the two other most populous counties in the state, St. Louis and Jackson counties, according to data from CNN.com.

With the exception of the uber-conservative states of Utah, Nebraska, Alaska and Oklahoma, nearly every "red" state with major metropolitan centers had pockets that strongly supported Kerry, including Colorado (Denver and Boulder), Georgia (Atlanta), and Indiana (Gary).

Conversely, although Kerry handily won Pennsylvania, California, Illinois and Oregon, the vast majority of counties in the blue states showed a clear preference for Bush. For example, in Pennsylvania, 54 of the 67 counties went for Bush, but Kerry carried the state, thanks to strong support in the Philadelphia (81 percent) and Pittsburgh metro areas.

Whether a state votes Democratic or Republican is most commonly determined by the percentage of its voters that live in urban areas. "It's bogus to say there are red and blue states," says Phil Klinkner, professor of government at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. Klinkner points out that rural voters tend to be older, whiter, more conservative and family oriented, and therefore vote Republican.

City dwellers tend to be more diverse and educated, he says. "The Democrats have been the urban party since the New Deal," Klinkner says, and urban dwellers are less likely to be frequent churchgoers and have a higher level of education and more advanced degrees than their rural counterparts. More than 70 percent of voters in New York, San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia voted against Bush in both 2000 and 2004. The president did win the largest cities in Texas as well as in San Diego, although not by a wide a margin.

San Francisco State University Professor Richard DeLeon says that voting tendencies "are not just the urbanity (of the community), although that is a factor." DeLeon co-authored a study this year entitled "Identity Politics and Local Political Culture" that analyzed 30 communities and discussed how "place matters in determining a region's political culture.”

DeLeon created a "new political culture" index rating based on seven factors that indicate how liberal or conservative a community is likely to be. These factors include the amount of single working women, the presence and acceptability of gays and lesbians, the racial diversity, and the percentage of people who do not adhere to a religion.

"You have to go beyond rural and urban to see what is the makeup of the people," DeLeon says. These differences explain why some cities like Boston and San Francisco are highly liberal, while communities such as Birmingham, Alabama and York, Penn. are conservative.

The report states that "women, non-whites, people of higher [socio-economic status], and those who are less religious are more likely to be liberal. ... Race and religion both predict political ideology."

Data from CNN's exit polls confirm that Kerry's urban vote included strong support from minorities. Of the African Americans polled, 88 percent said they voted for Kerry, and a slim majority of the Latinos voted for Kerry.

Those polled who said a president's religious faith was an important personal characteristic voted overwhelmingly for Bush (91 percent). The president scored well with Catholics and Protestants, but Jews or those who listed "no religion" or "other" preferred Kerry.

Conservative author and psychologist Terry Paulson, who wrote the book "The Dinner: The Political Conversation Your Mother Told You Never to Have," says church provides a social role for people in rural areas with limited opportunities to mingle. "Once a week churchgoers are more likely to vote Republican," according to Paulson.

Paulson, who grew up on a farm but now lives in Los Angeles, says rural voters have a different value system that aligns more closely with Republican ideals. Urban and rural people “define caring differently ... rural people say they will help you if you really, really need help, while Democrats say some people aren't going to be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps."

Urban voters who are more likely to interact with other races and cultures are more likely to think about the international impact of U.S. actions, Paulson says. For these voters, peace and relying on diplomacy first are important values, he says.

Suburban voting tends to depend on how long residents have lived there, according to SFSU's DeLeon. He says older suburban residents battle for majority with residents who more recently moved out from the city.

Suburban areas such as Montgomery County, Penn. tend to swing from Democratic to Republican presidential candidates from election to election. Kerry won Montgomery County as well as neighboring Bucks and Delaware counties in 2004, the first time the bellwether region did not agree with the winner of the popular vote in more than 70 years. However, in 2004 Bush won a number of suburban Gulf coast counties in Florida that voted for Gore in 2000, enabling him an undisputed victory in the Sunshine State.

Hamilton College's Klinkner expects that urban voters will continue to create "islands of blue in the sea of red" for the near future. While the rhetoric may have heightened during this election cycle, Klinkner said the country was no more divided than in 2000, and is likely to continue that way.

John Gartner writes about environmental technology and alternative energy from his home in Philadelphia.