Democrats’ biggest demographic problem

Forget working class white voters.  Sean Trende— who was as right about this election as anybody– does a really, really interesting post-election analysis without even explicitly considering race.  Democrats’ problem is that their voters are ever more increasingly clustered in urban areas and therefore ever more inefficiently distributed to win elections.  This graph is kind of amazing:

In case that’s not entirely clear.  Where once Democrats competed on roughly equal footing on various levels of urbanicity, they are now getting killed outside mega and large cities.  And there’s just not enough mega and large cities:

In other words, the Democrats’ coalition of the ascendant is very inefficiently distributed.  We therefore opted to utilize a demographic (urbanicity) that is easily filtered through a geographic component (CBSAs) and that people intuitively think of in geographic terms.  What we discovered is a different dimension to the Democrats’ demographic inefficiency problem: They are becoming far too clustered in urban centers to be effective, even when they win the popular vote.

Winning mega-cities by 30 points is great, but her margin there was mostly (though not entirely) neutralized by her poor performance in large rural areas and small towns alone. Again, her vote in these mega-cities was also inefficiently distributed in already-blue states; the swing states with mega-cities tend to have large amounts of rural land, which is why she lost Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania. Finally, we note that while rural and small-town America are disappearing, that disappearance is happening much more gradually than people appreciate…

But we get back to our initial point: In our system of government, popular vote metrics are only sensible when put through a geographic filter.  This causes problems in the Electoral College, which we’ve recounted before.  There are only nine “mega-cities” in America: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas.  These, in turn, affect 11 states: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Illinois, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia and Texas.

In other words, in seven of these states, further growth in this area does no good for Democrats, as they are already blue. In three others (Pennsylvania, Florida and Georgia), the rural areas, towns, and small cities cast enough votes to outvote the mega-city.  The final one – Texas – may be the key to a Democratic majority down the road, but Hillary Clinton still lost it by nine points, with a lot of Romney’s votes going to third party candidates. Put differently, the place where the Democratic coalition is growing the most does them the least good, electorally speaking.

But if it causes problems in the Electoral College, it wreaks havoc in the Senate, House, and state legislatures.  While only 11 states have mega-cities, 18 states have neither mega-cities nor large cities.  To put this in perspective, a party that sweeps the rural and town-dominated states starts out with 36 Senate seats.  This won’t happen, of course – Vermont isn’t going Republican any time soon – but Republicans also have a solid foundation in states with large cities, like Oklahoma and Kansas.  Because of the Democrats’ concentration in cities, and because of the concentration of the urban vote in relatively few states, the Senate is now a natural Republican gerrymander.

In the House, it is largely the same story…

 3. This is reversible.

We close with the following thought.  This happened for a reason, and since it happened for a reason, it is probably reversible.  But it won’t happen overnight.  Democrats were once able to win rural areas, and send large numbers of members of Congress from these places.  That was in part because they focused their message on these areas, and tolerated culturally conservative Democrats like Harold Volkmer in Missouri and Sonny Montgomery in Mississippi.

But for much of the Obama administration, these members were forced to take a series of tough votes that rendered the Blue Dog Democrat a near-extinct species. Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 was almost entirely directed toward the coalition of the ascendant in mega-cities, which is a decent enough coalition for the popular vote, but is highly problematic for the Electoral College.

We very much doubt that liberal Democrats will like some of policy compromises that winning back these areas probably entails. We suspect, however, that they will find that preferable to the policies that will be enacted over the next four years.

I’m not sure if more socially conservative Democrats are the key to reversing this.  That said, I think Trende is exactly right that Democrats’ future electoral hopes do depend up– at least somewhat– reversing this trend.  Now, how to do that?  (Or, maybe it really is just more socially conservative Democrats?)

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

3 Responses to Democrats’ biggest demographic problem

  1. rgbact says:

    Dems do have a problem with this…and I believe much of it is natural, but not great for democracy. Was wondering whether it is constitutional for courts to ungerrymander the gerrymandering people do to themselves. Ultimately, I don’t think the Constitution can unpolarize people that are polarized though.

    I also was wondering what big policy concession is most likely for Democrats to get back rural voters. I think immigration is the best bet. Gay marriage is too far gone. Or maybe just never mention gun control ever again?

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    Trump has done more to get Trump supporters to switch to the Democrats now that he has acted to cancel TPP. Watch corn exports fall. Dissing Mexico will add to it.
    Iowa and more will return to the Democrats. Agriculture in general will be hurt by his actions, not just corn. NC alone could lose up to 2 billion in agricultural exports.

  3. ohwilleke says:

    Dems need to expand their coalition, but not with the same folks that the Democratic coalition has lost rolling back the clock as the linked article suggests. Democrats are never going to get back the socially conservative, rural, Southern, Evangelical Christian New Deal Dixiecrats that they lost. They aren’t even going to reverse the split of the parties along population density lines.

    But, they don’t need huge gains (just 3 percent of the electorate or so in a number of swing states) and there are most viable targets, like alienated Rust Belt voters and suburban voters who are concerned about GOP extremism, in those places, to make up for the voters that have left the coalition.

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