The 2016 election may not have been a realignment by historical standards, but it did bring the country’s political divides more in line with its cultural divides — the biggest of which may be the growing chasm between urban and rural Americans.
Essentially, it boils down to this: Cities and (especially these days) suburbs vote Democratic, and rural areas vote Republican. Some research suggests that these patterns hold up even after accounting for other important political predictors like race or gender. And there’s evidence that the urban-rural divide has continued to increase since 2016. For example, San Diego has historically voted Republican, but the GOP was shut out of the 2020 mayoral election after two Democrats won the most votes in the city’s March jungle primary. At the same time, Republicans widened their margins in rural areas even amid their defeat in the 2018 midterms, and parts of Appalachia that had voted Democratic for generations now vote Republican up and down the ballot, completing their conversion to the GOP under President Trump.
It’s hard, however, to measure just how urban or rural a place is (although CityLab’s Congressional Density Index and The New York Times Upshot’s “neighborhood density” are good starts). So FiveThirtyEight came up with one of its own, which has already played a role in our 2020 primary forecast’s “fundamentals” calculations. Essentially, we calculated the average number of people living within a five-mile radius of every census tract and took the natural logarithm to create an “urbanization index,” or a calculation of how urban or rural a given area is. And this number can be calculated (via a weighted average based on each census tract’s population) for states, congressional districts, counties — or anything that is made up of census tracts. Here is a calculation for how urban or rural each of the 50 states is:
|State||Partisan Lean||Urbanization Index||State||Partisan Lean||Urbanization Index|
|New York||D+22||12.56||North Carolina||R+5||10.32|
You may have noticed a pattern in the table above. The states with the highest urbanization indices include a lot of blue states, like New York, New Jersey and California. Meanwhile, the rural end of the spectrum is populated with red states like Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota. Indeed, if we directly compare this metric with the results of the 2016 presidential election, we can quantify just how important the urban-rural divide has become in our politics.
As you can see in the chart below, 10 of the 13 most urban states voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, while 12 of the 14 most rural states voted for Trump. The exceptions: the fairly urbanized states of Florida, Arizona and Texas, which went for Trump, and the more rural states of Vermont and Maine, which cast their ballots for Clinton.
It’s possible, too, that this relationship between a state’s “urbanness” and its presidential vote will get even stronger in 2020, as the correlation got noticeably tighter from 2012 to 2016 (the correlation coefficient was 0.55 in 2012 and 0.69 in 2016).
So let’s indulge in a little hypothetical and take this possibility to the extreme. What if the 2020 presidential vote were based purely on our urbanization index? According to our calculations, Democrats would win such a presidential election handily — 323 electoral votes to 215. And the election would produce a pretty funky-looking Electoral College map — one that looks simultaneously impossible and yet also like the logical conclusion of the way our politics has been trending. Here’s what the margin of victory would look like in each state:
Yes, some of the results are fantasies. Utah, despite being a bit more urban than your average state, is not going to vote Democratic any time soon. And if Vermont votes Republican by nearly 26 points, please pinch me.
But other results look more plausible, even if they are maybe a few election cycles away from this reality. In this scenario, the Midwest continues its embrace of the GOP, enough to make Minnesota a red state and Wisconsin go Republican by more than 8 points. Thanks to Chicago, Illinois would be the only Democratic bastion left in the region; Michigan and Ohio, though, would remain swing states.
Democrats, however, would more than make up for losses in the Midwest with wins in the Sun Belt. Florida, Arizona and Texas would become light blue states in this hypothetical. And given that these three states were decided by single digits in 2016, it’s actually not that far-fetched that they could vote Democratic in 2020 in real life. That said, two other emerging Democratic targets, Georgia and North Carolina, remain red states in a world where elections break down exactly along urban-rural lines.
Bear in mind that this exercise was, as they say, for entertainment purposes only. The urban-rural divide will never explain everything about our politics; indeed, analysis that places too much weight on it misses the fact that many African Americans in rural areas vote Democratic, or that many Cuban Americans in urban areas like Miami vote Republican. But it does help to illustrate why so many Democrats believe the path forward for their party is through the Sun Belt.
And indeed, early polls suggest former Vice President Joe Biden is competitive with Trump in Florida, Arizona and, to a lesser extent, Texas. In a simple average of eight Florida polls conducted since Jan. 1, Biden leads Trump 48 percent to 46 percent. And in a simple average of eight Arizona polls so far this year, Biden leads Trump 47 percent to 45 percent. But Biden still trails Trump, 48 percent to 44 percent, in a simple average of this year’s Texas polls. Still, that would be remarkably close for a state that Mitt Romney carried by nearly 16 points in 2012.
Obviously, these numbers can change; general-election polls have yet to come into their full predictive value. But if Biden does carry one or more of these states, he could have their high rate of urbanization to thank.