The folks at City Lab have cooked up an interesting analysis heading into November’s midterm elections. The CityLab Congressional Density Index breaks down each congressional district by its mix of high- and low-density neighborhoods. The report came up with six kinds of district, ranging from “pure rural,” which include mostly rural areas with some small cities and pockets of suburban-style areas, to “pure urban,” which is the dense urban stuff like New York City. In between we get “rural-suburban mix,” “sparse suburban,” “dense suburban,” and ‘urban-suburban mix.” By categorizing districts like this, City Lab has demonstrated that the density of an areas correlates directly with political affiliation. Here’s how it breaks down across the country:
Pure rural: GOP holds 84 percent of districts; 63 percent Trump voters
Rural-suburban mix: GOP holds 82 percent of districts; 56 percent Trump voters
Sparse Suburban: GOP holds 55 percent of districts; 47 percent Trump voters
Dense suburban: GOP holds 44 percent of districts; 39 percent Trump votors
Urban-suburban mix: GOP holds 15 percent of districts; 26 percent Trump voters
Pure urban: GOP holds 6 percent of districts; 14 percent Trump voters
This study seems to simply confirm intuitive, common knowledge of the rural-urban, left-right divide in the country. It also confirms a familiar narrative heading into the midterms: whether there are any changes in the party domination of either house of Congress largely boils down to which way the suburbs vote:
In dense suburban districts, Democrats already have the advantage of a majority of seats. But they are pressing forward in many more, launching credible challenges in 10 of of the Republicans’ 27 dense suburban districts. In sparse suburban districts, Republicans currently control more seats. But Democrats are poised to make headway there, too, with credible challenges in 19 of the 47 credible Republican districts.
Even in the 114 rural-suburban districts that contain a mix of rural areas and sparse suburbs, which are overwhelmingly Republican, Democrats could pick up 15 seats in districts seen as competitive.
For example, using City Lab’s nifty look up tool (which is embedded in their post), Texas’s 32nd Congressional District, currently represented by Pete Sessions, qualifies as a “dense suburban” district. Here’s what the analysis says about the 32nd:
“Nationally, there are around 83 districts like yours. Democrats represent 55 of them and Republicans represent 28. For the 2018 election, 9 of them are rated as competitive by the Cook Political Report — including yours.
“In November, your district will see Colin Allred, a Democrat, face off against Pete Sessions, a Republican. Cook rates it ‘Tossup’, while FiveThirtyEight gives Democrats a 29.8% chance to win.”
All of this data confirms existing theories about the way Americans have been reorganizing themselves over the past few decades, participating in what author Bill Bishop has called “the big sort.” Bishop described a demographic process by which Americans appear to organize themselves into neighborhoods and communities of shared socio-economic backgrounds, lifestyles and beliefs.
We vote with our feet and choose the kinds of places we want to live, based not just on their housing options, school systems, amenities and tax rates, but based on the political attitudes and beliefs of the people who live there.
This has set up a demographic situation in which the suburbs—because they are the grayest areas ideological speaking—possess the power to swing elections. An analysis of the 2012 election cited by City Lab shows that Barack Obama took many of the inner-ring suburbs, while Mitt Romney secured the exurbs. That left the ultimate power to swing down to the so-called “middle suburbs,” the “sparse suburban” and “dense suburban” areas which characterize so much of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Which is interesting to me for two reasons. First off, these “dense-suburban” areas are typically populated by middle-class families–property owners with kids in stable schools, likely holding down good jobs with healthcare. It makes sense that they would possess a general tendency towards conservative candidates. What may energize these voters to swing left, however, are issues attached to identity and morality. If the craziness around the recent Supreme Court nomination energizes enough blow-back from women voters, suburban moms will be the voters that push these areas towards the Democrats, just as they helped to push Sessions’ district into Hilary Clinton’s camp during the 2016 presidential election.
But there is a Texas-focused aspect to this November’s election that I also see reflected in these geographic predictors that isn’t fully explained by Bishop’s “big sort.” The divides between rural, urban, and various degrees of suburban areas are indicative not only of how Americans have sorted themselves into ideological camps, they also help explain how particular issues have become the central battlegrounds of the nation’s ideological divide.
Issues like abortion and gun control are not merely policies up for debate in the American political arena, they are issues that directly relate to how people living in various geographical areas understand their identity as Americans. For example, if you live in a dense urban area, an issue like gun control relates to a desire to ensure personal safety and limit crime and violence in your community. In suburban and rural areas, however, guns function more as a symbol of an idea of a kind of freedom, a totem of a certain ideological vision of America, while also sometimes serving a practical ranching or sporting function.
Those dispositions calcify into unmovable principles of identity, stalemating debate and conversation about policy. Not only do geographic distributions of populations serve as echo chambers, the very issues that are at the center of current political debate in America are at issue because they target notions of identity as they break down into ways of life supported by geographical distribution. In other words, the terms of the political wars are set by the issues that most directly target a fear that either rural or urban ways of life are under threat by the ideas and positions held by the other side.
Which is precisely why the Beto O’Rourke campaign so fascinating. Whatever your feelings are about where O’Rourke sits on the issues, his campaign has been designed around an effort to find common ideological ground between vastly different swaths of Texas voters. He is attempting to circumvent the typical ideological polarization that have been embedded into the identities of urban, suburban, and rural voters. He has a hunch that there are issues that could unite rural and urban voters—access to healthcare, for example. But he is also running a campaign whose central polemic seems to revolve around a proposition that differences on policy do not boil down to differences in understanding what it means to be a Texan or an American.
Will it work? We will see. But what O’Rourke has succeeded at already is laying out a road map for how to move past the geographic polarization outlined in the City Lab report. Because as much as the report tells the tale of two Americas with two different ideas of how the country should be run–ideas that blur as they run through the suburbs–the predictability of that divide also illustrates how politically advantageous it is to keep these two Americas entrenched in mutual distrust and fear.