Revolt Of The Disdained: Electoral Geography

Posted: Jan 13, 2020 9:54 AM
Revolt Of The Disdained: Electoral Geography

Source: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Zito and Dodd make a similar observation about the change of tone between Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign in 1992 and Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign in 2016: 

Within a generation, the religiosity that was once honored by both parties became mocked by one as merely a basis of bigotry. Angst about financial insecurity was derided by coastal elites in both parties as the last wheezing of an outmoded appendage on the global economic animal. Even in the wake of their decisive role in the elections, Rust Belt voters watched on cable television as the Left and journalists pigeonholed their rebellion as an ugly bout of white nationalism, doubling down on all the elitist snobbery those voters sought to rebuke.

It is very revealing to contrast the “home style” the two spouses displayed on the campaign trail. Bill Clinton was widely regarded at the time as the most talented politician of his generation. He had been elected governor of Arkansas several times. Hillary Clinton had won a Senate seat in New York in 2000 and was subsequently reelected. When Bill Clinton ran for president, he identified himself with the moderate wing of the Democratic Party and was able to attract so-called Reagan Democrats—whom George H. W. Bush had estranged—back to the fold. By contrast, Hillary Clinton identified herself with the Progressive wing of the party and, in effect, shoved aside its more conservative working-class constituency.

By this time the Progressives bore a strong resemblance to what, a generation ago, Samuel P. Huntington called the Davos Culture in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1993): 

Each year about a thousand businessmen, bankers, government officials, intellectuals, and journalists from scores of countries meet in the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. . . . Davos people control virtually all international institutions, many of the world’s governments, and the bulk of the world’s economic and military capabilities. . . . It is far from a universal culture, and the leaders who share in the Davos Culture do not necessarily have a secure grip on power in their own societies.

In 1992 Bill Clinton’s standard stump speech was premised on “nationalism and a critique of the economic and political elites who had taken actions contrary to the best interests of middle-class America.” He generally closed his speeches “with a clarion call to a cause instead of a call to a candidacy.” In 2016 Hillary Clinton’s speeches were “not a paean to the middle-class work ethic” but a checklist of “social wedges and cultural grievances.” Indeed, her kickoff speech concluded with “an extended riff about gender politics and her own potential to break the glass ceiling.”


These differences testify to a deep cultural divide that, for decades, has kept the defenders of traditional values—national, cultural, moral—on the defensive. Kotkin describes the attitude of the leadership of both the Democratic and Republican parties toward family and religious issues in terms that are not very flattering to either:

Sadly, neither of the rising political tendencies—what might be seen as Clerical liberalism [Democratic Party] and its libertarian counterpoint [Republican Party]—addresses such fundamental social deficits. The Clerisy tends to supplant the family with the state and informal arrangements among individuals.  Economically focused libertarianism, rapidly becoming the intellectual foundation of modern conservatism, is almost psychologically incapable of addressing such social issues. ‘The libertarian priority is meeting market needs,’ observed one commentator. Other issues are secondary or they are seen as curable simply through market mechanisms.

In the 2016 election the most striking predictors of electoral support for the two major party candidates—Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—were demographic: the population density and average education level within voters’ home county. According to Zito and Todd: “Counties with rates of educational-attainment density higher than the national average performed better for Hillary in defeat than they had for Obama in victory, and counties with rates of bachelor’s degrees below the national average of 29.8 percent moved toward the Republicans.”  But the apparent diversity of the latter offers opportunities to cross the educational divide.

The driver of this [educational-attainment] split is not the college education itself, but the social pressure that comes with living exclusively among other college graduates—and the political liberation that comes for college graduates who have a more educationally diverse orbit.

The specter of such a rift would have troubled the Framers of the American Constitution. The Framers of the American Constitution sought to achieve a “more perfect Union.” The premise behind their provision for an electoral college was to filter and help cool the political passions of the moment by selecting distinguished citizens from local electoral districts, who were not simply delegates but were also free to vote their conscience, to meet in the state capital of each state to cast their votes for president and vice-president. Just as importantly, the system favored candidates who could win broad political support throughout the country, which is also the reason why the president and vice president may not be inhabitants of the same state. 

The comparative diversity of the two candidates’ appeal in the 2016 election is readily illustrated by electoral maps which show the level of popular support on a county-by-county basis. In 2016 Donald Trump carried approximately 2600 counties compared Hillary Clinton’s 489. Trump was elected with 304 electoral votes from 30 states compared with Clinton’s 227 electoral votes from 20 states even though Clinton won approximately 48% of the popular vote and Trump won just under 46%. Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson, won approximately 3.3% and the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, won approximately 1.1%. There had not been such a large so-called third-party result since billionaire Ross Perot’s two bids in 1992 (19% of the popular vote) and 1996 (8% of the popular vote). Each time he failed to win any electoral votes.  

The bitterness of the divide within and between the two major parties is indicated by an unusually high number of seven electors pledged to the major party candidates—two for Trump and five for Clinton—who cast or attempted to cast protest votes instead. These results suggest a softening of traditional party support and may point toward an eventual party realignment. 


In part, these results seem to corroborate an even earlier study, The Big Sort (2008), which identifies newer demographic patterns—“the clustering of like-minded individuals”—that fracture along ever-narrower lines of identity and lifestyle. Bill Bishop writes in The Big Sort (2008):

The old systems of order—around land, family, class, tradition, and religious denomination—gave way. They were replaced over the next thirty years with a new order based on individual choice. Today we seek our own kind in like-minded churches, like-minded neighborhoods, and like-minded sources of news and entertainment. [...] [L]ike-minded, homogeneous groups squelch dissent, grow more extreme in their thinking, and ignore evidence that their positions are wrong. As a result, we now live in a giant feedback loop, hearing our own thoughts about what is right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows that we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear, and the neighborhoods we live in.

During the past three decades, an information revolution has weakened the broadcasting oligopoly that once tended to homogenize national and international reporting. A greater diversity of information outlets today has led political campaigning to become both more expensive and tactically more sophisticated but also more brutal. Bill Bishop’s remarkable observation of the 2008 Democratic Party primaries has considerable bearing on more recent events.

An election doesn’t have to be between a Republican and a Democrat to find the Big Sort at work. In the long 2008 Democratic primary season, Obama and senator Hillary Clinton split the vote. But in a dead even contest between two ideologically similar candidates, half the voters lived in counties where either Obama or Clinton won by landslides—a greater percentage than in the 2004 general election between Kerry and Bush. 

This sort of polarization is a significant trend but at the time it seemed to defy conventional wisdom. Like Ronald Reagan in the 1976 Republican primary contests against Gerald Ford, Barack Obama in 2008 waged an insurgency campaign to overtake Hillary Clinton, who at the outset of the contest was the presumptive nominee. Reagan, who had solid support in the South and the West, barely fell short in the delegate count. But Ford was defeated in the general election by Jimmy Carter and Reagan was elected president four years later.  

Clinton took six of the seven most populous states in the country (except Illinois, where Clinton was born but where Obama served as a senator), along with the Rust Belt, the coal country of Appalachia, and the oil-rich Southwest. Yet Obama secured the nomination by winning more states and dominating the Deep South, the agricultural upper Midwest and High Plains, the northern tier of the Mountain West, and the Pacific Northwest.  

In retrospect, this outcome suggests that either a generational struggle within the Democratic Party had begun or a strong protest vote had erupted against Hillary Clinton. After all, at the outset, it was “her race to lose,” as the expression goes. Obama was best known as the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and as a first-term senator from Illinois who had written a couple of bestselling books: Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. During the nomination campaign, Obama certainly had done better in many areas, especially the South, which tended to vote Republican, but he also lost most of those states in the general election. Nevertheless, he was also able to expand the party’s appeal, which might otherwise have been concentrated on the East and West Coasts and in the industrial heartland. The Obama candidacy represented his supporters’ hope to inject new blood into the languishing New Deal and Great Society coalition that had dominated the country’s political agenda since 1933 and, again, 1964. But despite all his rhetoric about hope and change the evidence for a realignment or renewal within the Democratic Party, whether regional or generational, was mixed. By 2016 it was hard to detect a generational change in the party leadership.   

Trump’s ability to appeal to the agricultural Midwest that had supported Obama and the Rustbelt states that had initially supported Clinton but voted for Obama in the general election indicates the possibility of an electoral dealignment that may eventually lead to a party realignment. This brings us to the heart of the matter: the ability of Trump and the Republican Party to blend an older suburban coalition with a newer rural-industrial fusion of the neglected and disdained. As Zito and Dodd contend:

The emerging schism between the intensity of support for Republican candidates who represent this populist-conservative fusion in rural and industrial areas, and the newly competitive nature of educated suburbs that previously tilted Republican, is the core axis of our new politics.

Ronald Reagan made significant inroads into Democratic strongholds in 1980 and even more impressively in 1984 when he swept every state except Minnesota, his opponent’s home state. In his 1972 re-election Richard Nixon had done much the same, losing only DC and Massachusetts. Elements of this critical bloc of swing voters—at various times called the “Silent Majority,” Middle American Radicals, and Reagan Democrats—have played an essential part in most Republican Party electoral successes since 1968 but without great enthusiasm after the Reagan years.

But their support, once squandered, has been difficult for Republicans and Democrats alike to win back.