Red state, blue state; country state, city state

2016 presidential election by precinct (Ryne Rohla)

Pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson has gotten a lot of attention, and from serious people, for an analysis of the US midterm election results, but what she has to say is either trivially true or obviously false, and in some cases self-contradictory. Soltis Anderson’s overarching theme is that we should stop thinking in red states and blue states. She is right about this; but she has not yet heeded her own advice.

The state is a terrible unit of analysis, other than for specific government-related matters — laws, of course, or public universities and their fandoms. The state has never been a good unit of analysis for population characteristics or political views. It’s true that there is some relocation that might take place for governmental reasons, especially within metropolitan areas — lower taxes, better schools, the ability to smoke pot. But this is not enough to make states homogeneous or anything close to it.

That prominent analysts ever thought there was something expansively true about “red states” and “blue states” is disappointing. That framework made a limited amount of sense in Electoral College analysis — but even there, limited by the fact that four years can make a big difference in a state’s electoral outcome. But the framework made no sense in finer analysis, like how a given town or city will vote, let alone act in other ways.

For Republicans hoping to roll back Democratic advantages in 2018, running up the numbers in the rural areas in red states won’t be enough if the suburbs in those states start voting ever more like their blue state brethren.

Soltis Anderson suggests here that, up to now, blue-state suburbs had been liberal, and red-state suburbs conservative. This is, of course, not true. Suburbs have traditionally been conservative regardless of where they are. Orange County, California. Long Island and Westchester County, New York. Oakland County, Michigan. Loudoun County, Virginia. Waukesha County, Wisconsin. The whole story of suburbs in the politics of 2016 and 2018 is of previously-conservative suburbs moving towards the Democrats. Orange County in California is perhaps the most famous case, and California is perhaps the paradigmatic blue state. This pattern happened in the blue states of Illinois, Virginia, Colorado, and Minnesota, but also in the now-purple states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and in the red states of Georgia, Ohio, and Texas.

The suburbs of Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City and Salt Lake all sent Republicans packing and voted like they had politically more in common with the suburbs of Chicago, Denver, and Washington than with the sea of red that surrounds them in their states.

It has apparently escaped Soltis Anderson’s notice, but the suburbs of Chicago, Denver, and Washington are also surrounded by a sea of red. Washington’s northeastern suburbs merge with the suburbs of Baltimore, but to the south and west the countryside and small towns are Republican. Downstate Illinois is Republican. Outstate Colorado is Republican. Minneapolis-St. Paul; Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; Las Vegas. When you leave the suburbs, you encounter solid red territory, and that generally doesn’t end until you reach the suburbs of some other city.

Cities are cities, countrysides are countrysides, largely. They will vote like comparable cities and countrysides mostly regardless of where they are. In the past, there have been some anomalies. There have been two places where small-town and rural whites voted for Democrats: New England and the Upper Mississippi. Trump upended a lot of that, capturing significant parts of each. There was a little snap-back this year, but who wants to bet it will last?

Small-town/rural Democrats elsewhere are all racial minorities, who are mostly Democratic wherever they live; the main exception comes from regional differences among Hispanics. Big-city and college-town whites are also mostly Democrats, whichever state they are in. You could make a case for some Southern cities being anomalous forty or fifty years ago. But the distinctiveness has been collapsing for quite some time. The biggest determiner of the character of a city is how big it is. Compare Southern metros with northern/western metros of the same size.

If I wanted to guess a white person’s politics from location alone, I wouldn’t ask what state or region. I’d ask how big the city or town was and how close to the center she lived. That’s not a flawless method, but it’s better than “red state or blue state?”. Who actually thought Houston, being in Texas, was conservative? Who thought downstate Illinois, being in Illinois, was liberal? They aren’t. And again, that’s not new.

I lived in metro Atlanta twenty years ago. You’d have to get pretty far out to know you were in the South, even then. The suburbs to the east and north especially were not Southern suburbs; they were just suburbs. I have several cousins who were raised in these suburbs, and they don’t even have Southern accents. Beyond the suburbs, it did feel Southern, but: what would happen if you’d made the same trip outside of Indianapolis? Once you’d reached the outer exurbs and entered the countryside, encountering small towns here and there, your environment would be just as Republican, Union versus Confederacy notwithstanding.

Soltis Anderson is not claiming to have originated the observation that state-level analysis doesn’t explain political variation. But she is getting a lot of credit for the observation, even as she remains trapped in state-level analysis herself. Kristen Soltis Anderson rightly insists that we need to move beyond “red states” and “blue states”. But why doesn’t Kristen Soltis Anderson agree with her?