Dirt doesn’t vote: Why Trump’s Favorite 2016 Map Should Scare Him

by Ronald Brownstein

This week, as President Donald Trump went on the offensive to bolster his case against impeachment, he tweeted a county-by-county map of the 2016 presidential race that showed a vast sea of red interrupted only by a few blue inlets, mostly along the coasts. The map, captioned with the headline “Try to Impeach This,” documented the measure on which Trump performed best: He won over 2,600 counties, while Hillary Clinton carried fewer than 500.

Even though the version he tweeted slightly exaggerates his performance—by painting red several counties that actually voted for Clinton—the county map has long been a favorite of the president’s: A reporter for the conservative outlet OANN tweeted a photo in May 2017 of a staffer carrying a framed version to be hung somewhere in the West Wing. Trump likes the map for good reason: He carried more counties than any nominee in either party since 1984, when Ronald Reagan won reelection in his 49-state landslide.

But Trump’s beloved map is just one way to picture the political divide between blue and red America. It actually takes several maps to capture the full complexity of the two parties’ intense struggle for power—and each one alludes to a different pressure point that could tip the 2020 election.

As critics quickly noted, Trump’s map offered a misleading portrait because it pictures counties by geographic area, not by population. The map “says to me he has more support from cows than people,” sniffs the long-time Democratic strategist Tad Devine. “It’s not a representation of the population of the United States. It is a classic example of how he tries to mislead people.”

Maps that measure the 2016 result by population—particularly the so-called prism map that displays huge vertical bars over the major urban centers that backed Clinton—show the nation much more evenly balanced. That reflects the reality that while Trump won far more counties, Clinton won substantially more votes—nearly 3 million more in total, a margin roughly equal to President George W. Bush’s popular vote victory in 2004.

But those aren’t the only options for measuring the red-blue divide. While the population maps show a close partisan split, a map tying the election results to economic vitality would tilt toward the Democrats nearly as much as the county map leans toward the Republicans. Although Clinton carried fewer than one-sixth of the nation’s counties, the places she won in 2016 accounted for nearly two-thirds of the nation’s total economic output, according to calculations by the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank.

Each of these maps reveals a different aspect of the same larger story: a widening geographic, demographic, and economic separation between a Republican Party centered on the places that reflect what America has been, and a Democratic Party rooted in the places that embody what it is becoming.

With Trump on the ticket, as these maps suggest, the GOP has consolidated its control over exurban areas, small towns, and rural communities still heavily reliant on agriculture, energy production, and manufacturing—the powerhouse industries of the 20th century. But that dominance has come at the price of bleeding support in bustling urban centers and inner suburbs leading the transition into the 21st century information-age economy. The 2018 midterm elections showed the same pattern, as Democrats snatched a majority in the House by making sweeping gains in metropolitan areas but barely dented the Republican fortress in non-metro America.

At both the presidential and congressional level, write Mark Muro and Jacob Whiton of Brookings in a recent study, “the Democratic Party is now anchored in the nation’s booming, but highly unequal, metro areas, while the GOP relies on aging and economically stagnant manufacturing-reliant rural and exurban communities.”

Over time, this geographic realignment will benefit Democrats, because those metropolitan centers are growing in population and especially in economic clout as the nation transitions into the information-age economy. But in the near term, the trench between metro and non-metro America that’s been widened by Trump is creating anxieties for both sides. It reduces the odds of Republicans winning the presidential popular vote or a majority in the House of Representatives. Simultaneously, it diminishes the Democrats’ chances of controlling the Senate and many state legislatures, and leaves them with only a narrow pathway to an Electoral College majority.

That prospect has prompted pushback from some of the remaining rural Democrats against the idea that the party can, in effect, ignore the county map and focus solely on maximizing its advantage in the metro areas already trending toward them. “Basically what I’m saying is, Stop it,” says Heidi Heitkamp, the former Democratic senator from North Dakota who is the co-founder of the One Country Project, a group focused on rebuilding Democratic strength in rural America.

Trump’s fixation with the county map showed, not for the first time, how he equates geography with the size of his coalition. While counties that supported Trump accounted for fully 85 percent of the nation’s landmass, according to calculations by The New York Times, he won just under 46 percent of the total votes cast in 2016. Clinton’s counties covered only 15 percent of the nation’s landmass, but she won 48 percent of the vote. In other words, despite Trump’s cartographic claims of political dominance, dirt doesn’t vote.

“Certainly, over time a Republican Party that caters to non-urban areas is not going to win,” says Joshua D. Ambrosius, a political scientist at the University of Dayton who has studied the geography of presidential elections. “It is within this cultural backlash to the Obama presidency that Trump is seeing success with a mobilization of rural Americans. As the rural population becomes more Hispanic and the metropolitan population continues to increase, I don’t foresee that strategy working long term.”

Yet that doesn’t mean the county map is irrelevant to 2020. From the inverse perspective, it illuminates the growing correlation between population density and political preference captured by the population map.

The tendency of Democrats to run better in places with more people per square mile has increased in each presidential election since 2000, according to calculations by the economist Jed Kolko. In 2016, the number of residents per square mile was an even better predictor of how a metro area voted than its total population, its income, its racial diversity, or its share of college graduates, according to analysis by Richard Florida and his colleagues at the University of Toronto.

These dynamics produced a stark 2016 geographic alignment in which Clinton won 87 of the nation’s 100 largest counties (by a crushing combined margin of around 15 million votes), slightly outpaced Trump in the next 150 largest counties, but got walloped by him in over 2,500 of the remaining 2,850 smaller counties.

In the 2018 midterm elections, how the parties performed in House races largely followed this pattern. Democrats made sweeping gains in the inner suburbs of large metropolitan areas from coast to coast—not only in traditional Democratic-leaning areas such as Philadelphia, Chicago, and Denver—but also around Sun Belt cities that had previously tilted toward the GOP, including Richmond, Charleston, Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas. But the party barely nudged the dominance over exurban, small-town, and rural districts that Republicans have enjoyed since their sweeping gains in 2010.

The result is a congressional alignment that now separates the parties as sharply as the presidential-voting patterns. The 235 House seats held by Democrats comprise only 20 percent of the nation’s total landmass, roughly half as much ground as Democrats controlled in 2008, according to the study from Muro and Whiton.

But the Democratic House districts now account for nearly 64 percent of the nation’s total economic output, according to figures provided to me by Brookings. That constitutes an increase from the 61 percent 10 years ago, they found. “That’s a massive accumulation of additional economic vitality and power,” Muro said.

While the total economic output in the average Democratic House seat in 2008 was only slightly higher than in a typical GOP seat, today the typical Democratic district produces a stunning 50 percent more than the Republican one. The Democratic lead in income, college attainment, and productivity per worker has widened significantly as well. Since 2008, the Democratic districts’ share of the country’s total professional and tech jobs has soared beyond 70 percent, while the Republican districts have significantly increased their share of agriculture, resource extraction, and manufacturing jobs. In 2008, the population density in the typical Democratic House district was about double the level in the typical Republican district; now, as Democrats shed rural seats and Republicans retreat from urban ones, the disparity is nearly five to one.

Muro believes this divergence is likely to widen, because the underlying structure of the information-age economy encourages the consolidation of high-value employment in a few large urban centers. “All of these are ‘agglomeration’ industries—industries that depend on the clustering of people and skills to churn out large amounts of output with relatively few people,” he told me.

The county map Trump likes to tout commemorates his gains in smaller, preponderantly white places that have responded to his hard-edged cultural message and championing of traditional industries. But the cost is captured in the population and economic-output maps: a virtual collapse for his party in these thriving metropolitan centers, with their large numbers of white-collar, minority, and secular voters.

In several key state races since Trump’s election—such as governor’s races in Virginia, Wisconsin, and Michigan—Republican candidates amassed huge margins in small towns and rural areas only to lose because their support cratered in suburban areas around the largest urban centers. Even in Texas, Republican Senator Ted Cruz last year needed a huge rural advantage to just barely survive former Democratic Representative Beto O’Rourke’s nearly 800,000-vote edge in the state’s five largest counties.

Although few Republican strategists are publicly raising objections to Trump’s strategy of emboldening his rural base, the trends captured in the population and economic-output maps worry many of them, because the concentration of economic opportunity in the largest metropolitan areas resistant to him is likely to further concentrate population in those places too. From 2010 to 2018, the one-sixth of U.S. counties that voted for Clinton added nearly three million more people than the roughly five-sixths that backed Trump, according to Brookings calculations. Fully 1,460 of the Trump counties, well over half, have lost population since 2010, and 585 have seen their employment levels decline despite the economic recovery.

In Colorado, a swing state trending toward the Democrats, Dick Wadhams, the state’s former GOP chairman, says that despite the insistence of local Trump supporters, Republicans cannot recover just by squeezing more turnout out of the president’s non-urban base.

“The only way the Republican Party gets to be competitive again is if we find Republicans who can win in suburban Jefferson and Arapahoe counties,” Wadhams told me. “The problem for Republicans is that suburban voters don’t like Trump and they shifted massively to Democrats in this last election. The question is whether they are heading that way permanently.”

The flip side is that some Democrats see short-term risk from the trend captured in Trump’s favorite map: the GOP stranglehold over small-town and rural America. Doug Usher, a Democratic pollster who serves as the research director for the One Country Project, has calculated that if metro and non-metro voting patterns in 2020 continue along their long-term trajectory since 2000, the Democratic presidential nominee would win the popular vote by even more than Clinton did but not flip any state she lost in the Electoral College. Heitkamp argues that failing to compete more effectively for rural votes also guarantees the GOP a huge head start in the race for a Senate majority because of the party’s advantage in sparsely populated states.

Democrats may have few prospects of winning many non-metro areas, Heitkamp acknowledges, but even reducing Trump’s margins could prove critical in key swing states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. “We’re not trying to turn those areas blue,” she says. “We are trying to turn them pink.”

Few Democrats will endorse writing off non-urban communities. But many are dubious that there is much opportunity for gain there while Trump is delivering a culturally polarizing message that resonates so powerfully with many white, rural voters. “The quickest way home—and home means control of the presidency, the Senate, and the House—and to have future prospects over the next decade, is to maximize the vote we have in place and not to go out and enter into some persuasion with people who are not inclined to support Democrats,” Devine told me.

Those contrasting perspectives capture one of the core strategic choices facing Democrats in 2020: whether to focus more on establishing a few more islands of blue in the ocean of red on the county map, or to try to dye their places on the population map an even darker shade of blue.

Ronald Brownstein is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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