The word “realignment” may be the most overused and misused terms in American political journalism. True realignments are rare events and they are better understood after the fact than in the moment. But in the political turbulence of the last few years the American Communities Project sees some subtle and not-so-subtle shifts remaking the American political landscape.
Those shifts are not just pushing the political left and right further apart from each other, they are creating tensions and splits within the current Democratic and Republican coalitions – creating new maps for understanding the two major parties. Combining the ACP’s 15 county types with election, economic and demographic data reveals the outlines of those new party maps and the fault lines that exist within them.
The ACP’s mapping of these party divisions is not meant to replace the demographic understandings that emerge from polling and other analyses, but rather to enhance them with a geographic component. The ACP will be exploring these new maps over the next year. Today we look at the communities and fault lines within the 2013 GOP.
For our breakdown we took all the ACP county types that Mitt Romney won by more than 5 percentage points in 2012, and used demographic and other data to divide them into five distinct Republican voter groups. The 15 ACP county types, outlined on the map below, will serve as our guide.
The 2013 Republican Landscape
The splits within the Republican Party are different that those that the Democrats face in large part because of the GOP’s large geographic spread. Going by race or ethnicity, the Democrats have a coalition that seems more challenging to hold together, but the number and different kinds of communities in the Republicans’ map holds a real challenge for the party.
The 2013 Republican geography goes from the Exurbs into the many different parts of rural America. And those communities are very different. People in them experience very different economies. They watch, read and listen to different media. In short, the experience very different day-to-day realities and holding them together as a coalition may be increasingly difficult in the months and years ahead.
The Exurbanites – Exurbs: The Republicans have long struggled in the Big Cities and they are having troubles in the ACP’s suburban categories (particularly the Urban Suburbs) but the GOP still has a foothold in large metropolitan areas in the Exurbs, in yellow on the map. Mitt Romney won these counties by 18 percentage points in 2012
But their semi-urban nature separates the Exurbs from other Republican leaning communities in the country in a variety of ways. They are far wealthier than the other GOP types (median household income of $63,000 compared to the next highest type at about $50,000) and more invested in the stock market, as we noted recently. They also have large numbers of young families, which may lead them to see a host of issues differently than other Republican groups, including education and entitlements.
These are not communities that want to “blow up the system.” They want change, but have a strong stake in the way things are.
The Populists – Working Class Country, Graying America: There are some differences within the Populists. Working Class Country (dark blue on the map) is more rural and less wealthy than Graying America (in gray). But both have a median household income below $45,000. Both are older and more rural than the country at large. And Mr. Romney won the 2012 vote by double-digits in both.
There is definitely a streak of social conservatism running through these counties, but those concerns take a backseat to the serious economic troubles these places are experiencing. Both types are typically above average in unemployment. And both have relatively high poverty rates – 18% for Working Class Country and 16% for Graying America – that compounded with the low income numbers mean these places are struggling and angry.
The Populists are frustrated with things as they are and having a hard time getting ahead in the new economy.
The Faithful – LDS Enclaves, Evangelical Hubs: Populism is a strong force behind the Faithful as well, but sitting atop it are clear, strong religious overtones. The group makes up much of the social conservative center of the Republican Party. In 2012 Mitt Romney won the vote in both of the Faithful types by more than 38 percentage points. And outside of Salt Lake County, the counties that hold The Faithful are largely rural – more than 50% rural.
There are some notable differences in the communities that make up this group – Evangelical Christians, the bigger part of this group by far, often look askew at Mormons – but in a country that is moving to become more secular, the Faithful are a marked exception.
And an ACP analysis of different “political personas” from the research firm Experian Consumer Insights, finds the counties that comprise the Faithful, LDS Enclaves (in dark purple on the map) and Evangelical Hubs (in light purple), lead the way for “ultraconservative” voters, who are particularly conservative on social issues.
The Faithful have economic differences with the Democrats – as all Republicans do – and economic concerns, but the social issues that have long defined the GOP’s Religious Right core are the number one priority with them.
The Rurals – Rural Middle America, Aging Farmlands: Demographically speaking, the Rurals live in an America of years past. Their communities are the whitest in the ACP – on average more than 94% white – and also the least Hispanic, about 3%. In other ways the Rurals really are Middle America. They are not especially rich or poor, with median household incomes in the $43,000 to $47,000 range (remember rural dollars generally go farther), and they have relatively low levels of poverty. Of the groups outlined here, only the Exurbs have lower levels.
Among the Rurals’ counties, the Aging Farmlands (in light blue on the map) are far less populous than Rural Middle America (in royal blue) and more conservative overall. But Mr. Romney won both types by more than 12 percentage points.
The Rurals might be thought of as traditionalists who are leery of big change, in particular the big racial and ethnic demographic changes that are remaking the country. They are also older than average – more than 20% of them are 62 or older – which leads to more social conservativism, particularly in the farming areas, where the 62-and-over figure is higher.
The Soldiers – Military Posts: The Soldiers are the core of the Republican Party’s national security wing. While a strong national defense has long been a large part of the GOP’s identity, the Solidiers, who tend to live near military installations around the country have a special connection to the issue. (They are in brown on the map above.) It’s their husbands and wives, friends and neighbors, who get called upon when the U.S. goes to war. That said, they tend be supportive of military action in general and the troops specifically.
The Soldiers’ home in military communities means they have far higher numbers of veterans (17% of the population) and federal workers (7% of labor force) around them than other Americans. That makes them more sensitive to the way the federal government treats those segments of their communities. It has a direct impact on their well-being and economic health. These places are not wishing for another government shutdown.
Overall, their military presence leads these places to be more diverse and younger than average – more than a quarter under age 18 – and wealthier, with a median household income of $52,000.
This mix of places, economies and attitudes creates serious challenges for the GOP in an age of limited resources where cuts have to be made and different groups within the party have different wants and needs. Consider some of the inherent divides within these groups.
The Populists are angry at the way Washington works and want blow up the system. Many, for instance, didn’t want to raise the debt ceiling – something that would hit not only Washington, but Wall Street. But a big shakeup on Wall Street is not something the wealthy Exurbanites desire, they’re more interested in limited tax and spending cuts.
The Soldiers may not like government spending, but their communities full of veterans and active duty personnel that need care and they don’t want to see military spending cut. The Rurals, where racial and ethnic diversity are rare, aren’t particularly interested in immigration reform and they especially aren’t interested in seeing farm subsidies cut. The Faithful, meanwhile, want to press the party on social issues, even if the polling data shows that hurts the party in metropolitan areas and in the Exurbs.
That is a long list of conflicting desires and dislikes that even the best politician would find hard to navigate. And poll numbers suggest the list isn’t going away. In many ways, it’s growing longer and more complicated.
Next year’s congressional midterms will likely further exacerbate these divides. Absent a national candidates or election, Republican candidates across the country will appeal to their specific communities – which at the most will probably hold mostly one or two or these groups. But come 2016, those specific community messages will be of little help when the next national campaign arrives – in fact, they will probably only make the GOP’s task harder.
Is that the foundation for a “realignment”? That’s something the ACP is wondering too. Time will tell. But it is at least a recipe for a very challenging few years for the Republicans.