The Democrats’ Geography Problem

As we look for explanations for why Donald Trump was elected president

​And try to offer predictions for the future, we should ask whether we’ve been looking in the wrong places.

We often look to demographics—which often lead folks to believe that there is an ascendant Democratic majority waiting in the wings—and are disappointed when outcomes don’t align with our projections. Related to this myopic look at politics was the question prior to this past election about whether Democrats could replicate the Obama coalition without someone as talented as President Obama. (The answer to that question is probably “no.”)

Perhaps the more salient electoral factor for us going forward pertains to geography rather than demography. Sean Trende, the elections guru for RealClearPolitics, produced a masterful series on this topic after the recent election. The conclusion? Geography matters.

It doesn’t matter if a Democratic candidate picks up a rising percentage of a growing Hispanic population, for example, if most of those votes are found in the already-blue state of California. Trende provides a sterling example of the shortcoming of the demographic argument: Colorado has shifted to the left, not because of the growing Hispanic population, but because of a significant shift of white voters toward the left in that state.

Increasingly, the Democratic Party is becoming the Big City Party. President Bill Clinton had vast appeal among rural, blue collar whites. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had virtually none. The former Clinton’s coalition has been decimated, and more blue collar white voters voted for Donald Trump than Ronald Reagan. Among those voters, Hillary Clinton performed worse than Michael Dukakis.

This white flight from the Democratic Party was not as important in 2008 or 2012. President Obama galvanized urban and suburban voters in record numbers and GOP candidates offered very little appeal to middle America. Yet this problem for the Democrats metastasized under the weight of a decidedly-unpopular Democratic candidate and a surprising populist GOP candidate.

While Democratic support has grown in the major cities, it has plummeted in rural areas, small towns, large towns and has even diminished in small cities. The growth in the major cities cannot offset the losses in other areas—at least, when it comes to national elections. Sure, it may help with the popular vote, but it virtually guarantees losses in most of the states that truly matter (just ask Hillary Clinton).

In general, states with more urban voters are voting Democratic while states with more rural voters are voting for the GOP. The problem for Democrats is that most of the urbanized states are already Democratic. What does it matter if they win 55% or 65% in California? They already won the state. Their urban popularity has continued the leftward shift of states like Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada. It also kept them from losing Minnesota (by a bare one percent).

On the other hand, more rural and small town states—like most of those in the Rust Belt—shifted dramatically toward the right in this past election. Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee could not carry Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin for Democrats, respectively. Add in a less enthusiastic base of minority voters in those big cities and these Rust Belt states could stay in the GOP column for quite a while.

Increasingly, Democrats are relegated to power in the Northeast, West Coast, and Southwest (with an exception for Chicago-dominated Illinois). They may eventually take Arizona and North Carolina, but those gains will not offset the loss of most of the Midwest. Prior to this past election, Illinois and Minnesota were part of a string of blue extending from the East Coast into the interior of the country. Now, they are just islands in a sea of red. On the East Coast, the blue tide was slowly but surely sweeping down from the Northeast into the upper South of Virginia and North Carolina. The loss of Pennsylvania now leaves blue fragments in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Demographics might be on the side of Democrats, but that may not matter if the party only appeals to minorities and progressive, white collar white voters. Unless they can again become a national party with broad appeal, the Democratic Party may be entering its own wilderness years.