Sunday, November 9, 2008

The 2008 Vote: Non-metropolitan voters in the intermountain West appear less rural (culturally) than they used to be

Looking at the marvelous county-level election map on the NYT website (select “county leaders” in the upper left corner), one thing that strikes me is the dispersal of blue counties in the intermountain West. Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada have all received attention for their moves into the blue camp. In Nevada, the shift was attributable to urban voters, where only metropolitan Clark (Las Vegas) and Washoe (Reno-Sparks) counties, along with tiny Carson City County, went blue.

But in Colorado and New Mexico, support for Obama was more geographically dispersed. Denver County and the metropolitan cluster of counties around it supported Obama by large margins, as did Bernalillo (Albuquerque) and Santa Fe Counties. Many non-metropolitan voters in Colorado and New Mexico supported Obama, too, some for the first time, some not since 1992.

Despite commentators’ frequent and vague references to rural voters, there are, of course, rural communities have different demographic, racial/ethnic, and economic profiles. (See a Carsey Institute Report here). The non-metro Obama supporters in Colorado and New Mexico represent several of these profiles. Some poor, rural counties where New Mexico and Colorado border each other—many with critical masses of Latino voters—went for Obama, as did several exurban counties. Most notable, though, was how population churn and growth in amenity-rich counties in the Rockies, including a great deal of the western slope, affected the ’08 Presidential vote there. By way of contrast, 77% of voters in San Miguel County (population 6,594), home to the posh Telluride resort, went for Obama, while 64% of Montrose County (population 33,432), its flatter, more farming- and ranching-oriented neighbor to the north, supported McCain. Similarly, in Taos County, New Mexico, Obama prevailed with a whopping 81.5% of voters. Yet San Miguel County, Colorado and Taos County, New Mexico have voted Democratic in the last several Presidential elections. Certainly, they were blue back in 1992, though by much smaller margins with Ross Perot in the race. They represent the earliest phase of rural gentrification in the West, and that status is reflected on election maps going back to 1992, when other counties around them—many now blue—were still red.

The second wave of rural gentrification may be seen in pockets of other western states that remain more consistently red. Some of the blue counties now swimming (drowning!) in these seas of red are, like Telluride and Taos, amenity rich and now burgeoning with newcomers. Those newcomers are often highly educated and wealthy, especially by local standards.

Take Utah, for example, where only two counties, Grand and Summit, went for Obama. Both are examples of rural gentrification in the form of what I call rural resorts. Grand County, population 8,485, is the home of Moab (population 4,779), outdoor-adventure capital of the state, while Summit County, population 29,736, is home to Park City (population 7,371) with its cluster of ski resorts. Both counties have seen a lot of population churn. Thirty-five percent of Summit County’s 2000 population had not lived there just five years earlier. In Grand County, 24% of its residents in 2000 had lived elsewhere in 1995. That means a lot of newcomers to both locales, many presumably from out of state, bringing their blue politics (typically including environmentalist credentials) with them.

A couple of Arizona counties also went blue. One was the massive Coconino County, which represents about 15% of the state’s land area, including the north central part that encompasses the Grand Canyon, as well as Flagstaff (the topic of a post about rural gentrification here), Page, and part of Sedona. With a population of 116,320, the county is sparsely populated and includes a vast amount of federal public land, but some 47,000 votes were cast there, more than 57% of them for Obama.

In Idaho, the bluest of counties was Blaine County, home of Sun Valley resort and nearby Ketchum. With a population of just 18,991, 65% of voters there supported Obama. The only other speck of blue in the state was Latah County, home of Moscow and the University of Idaho. There Obama garnered 9,191 votes to McCain’s 7,984. Remember that huge Obama rally in Boise? I guess the Obama supporters who turned out for it were diluted in other parts of this Republican stronghold. Still, comparing 2004 to 2008, the entire state is leaning blue with the exception of Lemhi County, population 7,806, on the Montana state line. (Sure makes you wonder what is going on in Lemhi County . . .)

Just two counties went blue in Wyoming, too, and their demographic profiles mirror those of their Idaho counterparts – one rural resort, one university town. Sixty-one percent of Teton County (population 18,251), home of Jackson Hole, went for Obama, while Albany County (population 32,014), home of Laramie and the University of Wyoming, was a paler shade of blue, with just over half of voters supporting the Democratic ticket. In fact, Teton County has voted Democratic in several Presidential elections since 1992, which reflects its status as a first-wave rural resort.

A number of rural counties in Montana went for Obama, as did the more populous counties that are home to Missoula, Helena and Great Falls. One could argue that because Missoula and Great Falls are metropolitan by some measures, with populations over 50K each, they are simply additional examples of city voters doing what city voters did in this election (and many in the past)—voting Democratic. But I doubt it. More likely, newcomers to these places, which a decade or two ago were culturally rural and not only spatially so, also turned the political tide. Plus, the investment that Obama’s organization made in the state probably made a difference.

So, when the broad-brush national analysis shows that Obama closed the gap with rural voters, it is important to remember the variety among rural places and those who now reside there. Many amenity-rich non-metropolitan locales in the West are no longer the sort of static, traditional, and homogeneous communities long associated with rurality. Transplants to these locales are often highly educated and relatively affluent, with the same urbane outlooks and tastes associated with Obama – and with city voters over the past several election cycles. They are not necessarily against regulation and an active federal government. They generally want to protect the natural environment.

As these non-metropolitan places are being transformed demographically, they are also being transformed culturally. As this week’s Presidential vote shows, with that comes political change, too.

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