Sunday, December 2, 2012

Never mind swing states, let's talk swing counties

The New York Times reports today with a focus on the 94 counties that were truly in play in the 2012 Presidential election.  These are the counties within the eight swing states that voted for George W. Bush in 2004 but went to Barack Obama in 2008.  Of these 94 counties, Obama won 48 in the Nov. 2012 Presidential election, while Romney won the remaining 46.

Romney's showing was insufficient for two reasons.  One is that Obama won many of these counties by significant margins in 2008, and Romney had to do much better than he did in 2012.  The other is that "many of the counties that the Republican nominee carried were smaller, often rural, outlets in Wisconsin and Iowa. Actually 80 percent of the swing counties that Romney won this time were in those two states and made only a small dent in Obama’s clear winning margin in both states."

So, I see two messages:  (1) Romney is more attractive than Obama to rural voters, which is hardly news at this point, and (2) rural voters--simply because they are less numerous--hardly make a dent in the swing states.  Even though some of those swing states are popularly though of as rural, e.g., Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, metropolitan voters still greatly outnumber nonmetropolitan voters in those states.

More detail from the author of the column, Albert Hunt, is here.  He writes of very populous swing counties in Virginia and Colorado that Obama won--sometimes by significant margins--in 2012:
Mr. Obama carried Prince William, the third most populous county in [Virginia], by 16 percent, or more than 28,000 votes. He won a narrower, but clear, victory in Loudoun [County], which before 2008 had not voted for a Democratic president since 1964 and where, 20 years earlier, George H.W. Bush won by a margin of more than two to one.
Both counties are fast growing, with the population of Prince William County having quadrupled over the past 40 years and that of Loudoun County having grown tenfold.  Loudoun is "affluent and diversifying with a mix of Latinos, blacks and Asians."  

The important swing counties in Colorado are Arapahoe County and Jefferson County, both part of the Denver Metropolitan Area.  Arapahoe, the states third most populous county, is east of Denver, and Jefferson County, west of Denver, casts more votes than any other in the state.  "Like their Virginia counterparts, these counties are fast-growing and comparatively well off," and they are hugely influential in elections.  Hunt characterizes Jefferson County as having a "range of voters from upper income to working class."  Hunt quotes Craig Hughes, a Democratic consultant, regarding Jefferson:  
It mirrors in every election, Colorado.  If you want to carry the state, you carry Jefferson.
Obama carried Jefferson County by nearly five points in the 2012 race, and Arapahoe by nearly 10 points.
And so, it seems, the impact rural voters once enjoyed (at least in theory) is now eclipsed in the context of state-wide and national races.  After all, only a couple of states, e.g., Montana, have more residents living in rural places (as defined by the 2,500 population cluster size) than in urban ones.  In the context of the electoral college, this means so-called rural states have extremely little power at all when it comes to electing the President.  

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