In 1984, Reagan won 525 electoral votes to Mondale's 13
In 1984, Reagan won 525 electoral votes to Mondale’s 13

Twenty-five years ago, George H.W. Bush was inaugurated as the last Republican to win a decisive victory at the national level. He was also the last Republican to hold his own in America’s cities. In urban counties as diverse as Hillsborough (Tampa), Hamilton (Cincinnati), and San Diego, he scored victories by twenty-point margins. Even in our humble New Haven County, he eked out a win with 51% of the vote. In wealthy suburban counties, like Orange County (outside Los Angeles) and Fairfax County (outside Washington, D.C.), his margins were even more impressive. In all, he won 55 of the 100 most densely populated counties nationwide (with over 100,000 residents, henceforth the urban core), and trailed Michael Dukakis by just 322,000 votes around 34,000,000 cast, a margin of less than 1 percent.

This, however, is a thing of the past. Republicans are now firmly based in the countryside. In fact, outside of the urban core, Mitt Romney’s margin of victory (7.3 million votes) actually exceeded Bush’s margin of victory (6.75 million votes). If Romney had held Obama to a 15-point margin in the urban core, he would have won a popular victory—and almost certainly an electoral one. But he didn’t. Instead, he received a 28-point shellacking, winning a meager 11 of the 100 urban counties. Formerly conservative urban centers like Miami-Dade, FL (55 percent Bush, 38 percent Romney) as well as affluent suburbs like Alexandria, VA (46 percent Bush, 28 percent Romney) swung far in excess of the nation as a whole (53 percent Bush, 47 percent Romney). These voters have enabled President Obama to win states like Florida, where he won a narrow 73,000-vote victory buoyed by a 472,000-vote lead from 34-point wins in the South Florida counties of Miami-Dade and Broward; Bush defeated Dukakis in both.

In 1936, Roosevelt won 523 electoral votes to Landon's 8
In 1936, Roosevelt won 523 electoral votes to Landon’s 8

There are many reasons postulated for this shift: the growing bloc of Hispanic voters in cities, the increasingly stark contrast between the parties on social issues, and the rise of the information economy at the expense of the manufacturing sector, to name a few. But its electoral implications will be disappointing if you hope for the government to regain some rudimentary level of functionality. Despite all of the hand-wringing about gerrymandered congressional districts, the Tea Party, and the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling creating the cesspool of dysfunction that is the 113th Congress, there is a simple reason for a good deal of the polarization in our politics: we, as a nation, have become more polarized. More and more incumbents do not have to fear a reëlection challenge from the opposite party—partly because of redistricting maps designed to crack and pack the opposition, but also because of self-sorting among voters. Take California, which has an independent, nonpartisan redistricting commission. In 1992, 22 of 52 congressional districts were decided by fewer than ten points in the presidential election; by 2012, that had fallen to just seven out of 53. The number of districts won by greater than twenty points doubled to 32 from 16. And, quite honestly, I challenge you to create a sensible map with compact districts that isn’t wildly polarized. Or we can look at counties, which are static over time. In 1988, 46 of California’s 58 counties gave President Bush within 10 points of his national vote. By 2012, that figure had fallen to 24. If we use the statewide vote instead, we see the same story unfold: 45 for Bush, 21 for Obama. On the national level, the gap is even more stark: 64 percent of all counties gave Michael Dukakis within ten points of his nationwide total; for Mitt Romney, that had fallen to just 15 percent. Just 6.6 percent of votes were cast in counties that were 40pt+ blowouts; twenty-four years later, it had more than tripled to 22 percent. Even the most creative cartographers that Maryland Democrats and North Carolina Republicans can hire can’t move voters: they can only draw lines on a map. And the map that they’re drawing on has changed dramatically over the past quarter-century, leaving heavily Democratic districts in cities, affluent suburbs, New England, and the Pacific Coast, while Republicans sweep up large margins in the rural heartland, Deep South, and Appalachia.

So what does this mean? Their growing edge in the cities gives Democrats an advantage in the Electoral College: with places like Miami, Denver, Cleveland, and the Washington suburbs firmly within their base, it is a steep climb for a Republican to win nationwide. But this comes at a great cost: Obama’s ascendant coalition is ill-fitted to win the House. Since Democrats are concentrated inefficiently into large cities like Philadelphia (85% Obama), Manhattan (84%), and St. Louis (83%), they quickly squander their lead in a state like Pennsylvania in one or two congressional districts, leaving themselves underrepresented (under the best of circumstances) and exceptionally vulnerable to creative redistricting. As a result, we shouldn’t expect victories at the presidential level for the Democrats to result in Congressional majorities, and Republican success in Congress doesn’t—in a vacuum, at least—point to an advantage in 2016.

So we should all hope that divided government is an acquired taste, because it’s something that we should get used to if the present coalitions hold.

Published by JP Meredith

John Meredith is a contributor to The Politic from New York, NY. Contact him at john.meredith@yale.edu.

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