Yesterday, the New York Times put out an interactive map of the 2016 Election, broken out down to the precinct level. While some critics have noted how the map doesn’t depict population density or the “swing” of the districts, I find the map to be very fascinating and useful, particularly for understanding the basic structural contours of America and it’s politics.
The most basic thing the map accurately depicts is the biggest problem Democrats have- while they may make up a plurality of the electorate, they all live together, which doesn’t work in a federal republic. It’s great that we can win California by a couple of million votes, but it doesn’t really do us much good winning Presidential elections. We win blue districts by 60%+, and still only get that one seat. They win an exurban seat by 20% or less and it’s a wash. You can only really draw so many seats in San Francisco.
What also stands out to me is in how much of the country we are simply uncompetitive. Sure, Republicans are nearly non-existent in urban areas now, but they’ll take that trade when they dominate nearly the entire Midwest and Appalachian Trail states. This split of the country probably insures a long-term Senate dominance, and it tends to reinforce itself at the House level. A Democratic caucus so entrenched in urban America is a Democratic Party that in turn tends to move left on issues, making itself uncompetitive with voters who aren’t from their base.
Democratic operatives are largely unprepared to run elections in the nation that is. They understand statistics and data, but really don’t understand margins. They’ve figured out that a huge portion of a Democratic candidates votes will come out of cities, and that it’s easier and cheaper to get votes in base areas, but they’ve failed to understand that even a huge city like Philadelphia can’t carry Pennsylvania when they lose by dramatic margins everywhere else. It’s very clear when you look at Philadelphia and Detroit that the politics make a stark change the minute you cross the city line.
American elections are, and will continue to be won in suburbia, at all levels. If there aren’t enough city-based blue seats for Democrats to form a majority, and the rural areas are too far gone politically, then the only pathway forward for Democrats to win legislative majorities and win statewide victories are the suburban voters. One of the most alarming things about Trump’s Pennsylvania victory in 2016 was just how well he did in Northeast Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley, and even in some of the Philadelphia exurbs. While the “Main Line” area became more blue, Eastern Lancaster County, Berks County, Northampton and Monroe Counties all moved in the wrong direction. This will have to reverse itself for the Democrats to win the House in 2018.
The question Democrats have to ask themselves moving forward is who are the voters they are going to pick up, and what kind of message is going to get it done? The good news for the national party- I see hope in the South. There may not be a more geographically sustained “blue” strain on the entire map than the one running from the Mississippi River towns across the Deep South all the way to Georgia and the Carolinas. There are systemic reasons this region hasn’t produced majorities for Democrats- voter suppression, gerrymandering, voter apathy, and resources to run campaigns- but the future could be bright here. If Democrats continue to fight for voting rights and move forward embracing their base, perhaps the Deep South may be the one region where current electoral trends break well for Democrats.
Ultimately though, electoral trends should scare Democrats. Even if the Deep South moves towards Democrats, that will not offset the negative trends in other regions. The Rust Belt is already a swing area where Trump did very well. New England isn’t safe either. Republicans hold the Governor’s mansions in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine, and the Governor’s mansion and legislature in New Hampshire. Donald Trump won an electoral vote in Maine, and narrowly missed carrying Maine and New Hampshire, on the whole. Minnesota narrowly avoided joining Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania as states that flipped. If all of these states continue to trend Republican, the Senate could disappear for a long time, and the electoral college will crush the emerging majorities in the “big blue” states. With the House having a natural bias against cities in the first place, this will kill the party.
On a final note, the most alarming thing about this map was looking at my own “neighborhood” here on the “enlightened” East Coast. Here in the first county over the stateline from “blue” New Jersey, Donald Trump more than just carried the county- he won some places that Republicans usually don’t win. He won places that don’t look and seem like “Trump Country.” While he didn’t really infiltrate Allentown, Bethlehem, or Easton, he made large sections of Northampton and Lehigh Counties solid red. He won seemingly tolerant suburban neighborhoods. The results of 2017 county elections in the region suggested some movement away from him, but it remains to be seen about the long term electoral trends.