Examining the claim that “conservatives prefer suburban McMansions while liberals like urban enclaves”

The new report from Pew on political polarization reaffirms there is an urban/suburban divide in the electorate:

With disquieting predictability, 10,013 adults — respondents in the largest survey the Pew Research Center has ever conducted on political attitudes — answered according to their ideology. Seventy-seven percent of “consistently liberal” adults went with what sounded like the urban milieu: the dense neighborhood, the compact home, the “walkability.” Fully seventy-five percent of “consistently conservative” adults went with the polar opposite.

“It is an enduring stereotype – conservatives prefer suburban McMansions while liberals like urban enclaves – but one that is grounded in reality,” Pew concluded in the report released today.

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This is corroborated by other data: Democrats are centered in cities, Republicans in exurbs and more rural areas, and the parties fight over suburban votes.

Two interesting points from the tables above:

1. The first question describing more spread out areas versus cities is a double- or triple-barreled question that supposedly contrasts more suburban versus more urban areas. Maybe. Take the larger or smaller house part of the question. Plenty of wealthier urban residents own single-family homes or large condos or apartments – but these neighborhoods aren’t going to be as sprawling as many urban neighborhoods. But, even there, you would get some big differences between denser cities – the Northeast, Midwest, San Francisco – versus more sprawling city neighborhoods in places like Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, and other Sunbelt locations.

2. In the second chart, the real difference between conservatives and liberals is not that they have different opinions about suburbs: that holds relatively steady at around 20%. The bigger differences are between preferring cities versus small towns or rural areas. I’ve seen enough other data about small towns on surveys to think that there is quite a bit of overlap between suburbs and small towns. In other words, they are not mutually exclusive categories. Even some rural areas might still be suburbs, depending on their location within a metropolitan region or their proximity from the big city.

All together then, the suggestion that it is suburban McMansions versus cities is a bit misleading. Adding the label McMansion gets the point across about larger houses but it also adds a pejorative element to the mix.

More sprawl = more Republicans

Richard Florida summarizes research that shows cities with more sprawl have more Republicans:

Hickory, a small industrial city in western North Carolina, lies within the state’s 10th congressional district, one that the Washington Post has called “one of the most Republican in the nation.” Its representative, Congressman Patrick McHenry, proudly boasts that, on family values issues, he is tied for the “most conservative voting record in Congress.”

Last week, Hickory topped another list. Researchers at Smart Growth America named the metro it anchors (Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, population 350,000) the most sprawling in the country (PDF). At the other extreme, the metros topping the list of “most compact” are also some of the country’s true blue strongholds, with New York and San Francisco ranking as the two most “compact metros” in America.

These two sets of metros reflect a more pervasive pattern. In recent decades, America’s politics have exhibited a new trend, where Red America finds its home base in some of the country’s most sprawling places, while Blue America is centered in denser, more compact metros and cities…

Researchers have identified a tipping point of roughly 800 people per square mile where counties shift from Red to Blue, as I noted in the weeks following Barack Obama’s reelection. Princeton historian Kevin Kruse similarly explained this spatial link between a spread-out landscape and Republican political positions to the New Republic. “There are certain things in which the physical nature of a city, the fact the people are piled on top of each other, requires some notion of the public good,” he said. “Conservative ideology works beautifully in the suburbs, because it makes sense spatially.”

While I’m not sure Florida’s correlations that are strong, his arguments are in line with other researchers who have uncovered this pattern in recent decades. But, the data could be even more fine-grained than just comparing metro areas (which have varying degrees of sprawl within them): dense cities are more Democrat, exurbs are more Republican, and the parties are fighting over middle-suburb residents, places that may have been more traditional suburbs but have recently experienced more demographic and economic change.

Computer models of the effects of gerrymandering on urban and rural voters

A new computer simulation of voting patterns by geography in the United States suggests gerrymandering may not be the cause of Republican majorities in the House:

To examine this hypothesis, we adapted a computer algorithm that we recently introduced in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science. It allows us to draw thousands of alternative, nonpartisan redistricting plans and assess the partisan advantage built into each plan. First we created a large number of districting plans (as many as 1,000) for each of 49 states. Then we predicted the probability that a Democrat or Republican would win each simulated district based on the results of the 2008 presidential election and tallied the expected Republican seats associated with each simulated plan.

The results were not encouraging for reform advocates. In the vast majority of states, our nonpartisan simulations produced Republican seat shares that were not much different from the actual numbers in the last election. This was true even in some states, like Indiana and Missouri, with heavy Republican influence over redistricting. Both of these states were hotly contested and leaned only slightly Republican over all, but of the 17 seats between them, only four were won by Democrats (in St. Louis, Kansas City, Gary and Indianapolis). While some of our simulations generated an additional Democratic seat around St. Louis or Indianapolis, most of them did not, and in any case, a vanishingly small number of simulations gave Democrats a congressional seat share commensurate with their overall support in these states.

The problem for Democrats is that they have overwhelming majorities not only in the dense, poor urban centers, but also in isolated, far-flung college towns, historical mining areas and 19th-century manufacturing towns that are surrounded by and ultimately overwhelmed by rural Republicans.

A motivated Democratic cartographer could produce districts that accurately reflected overall partisanship in states like these by carefully crafting the metropolitan districts and snaking districts along the historical canals and rail lines that once connected the nonmetropolitan Democratic enclaves. But such districts are unlikely to emerge by chance from a nonpartisan process. On the other hand, a Republican cartographer in these and other Midwestern states, along with some Southern states like Georgia and Tennessee, could do little to improve on the advantage bestowed by the existing human geography.

Perhaps this introduces a new strategy for political parties: the need to have more evenly distributed support rather than large clusters of support. But, as the bottom of the article notes, certain redistricting strategies like in Illinois or Maryland can provide Democrats some help in spreading out the effects of their urban voters.

Two “cousin” states follow different paths: Minnesota goes Democrat, Wisconsin goes Republican

A look at the twin ports of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin highlights the political differences between the two states:

In 2013, Wisconsin’s lawmakers cut income taxes. They approved an expansion of school vouchers. They passed a requirement, portions of which are now being contested in court, that abortion providers have admitting privileges at local hospitals and that women seeking abortions get ultrasounds. They rewrote iron mining rules to ease construction of an open pit in Northern Wisconsin.

In Minnesota, lawmakers sent more money to public schools, raised income taxes on the highest earners, increased the tax on cigarettes and voted to add new business taxes. They allowed some undocumented immigrants to get in-state tuition for public universities. They legalized same-sex marriage.

“It’s staggering, really, like night and day,” said Lawrence R. Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. “You’ve got two states with the same history, the same culture, the same people — it’s kind of like they’re cousins. And now they’re looking across the border and seeing one world, then seeing something else entirely on the other side.”

This sounds like a good natural experiment for social scientists to look at. If the states share similar backgrounds and geography, perhaps the differences in outcomes over the next few years can be attributed to the different political parties in control. Unfortunately, the article is pretty impressionistic thus far and doesn’t offer too many concrete differences in life. Perhaps not enough time has passed – or perhaps the differences in daily life still might not change that much for most residents.

Rahm Emanuel: Chicago the model for pro-growth policies

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had an op-ed in the Washington Post on Friday where he explained how his city could show America the way toward growth:

While infrastructure improvements have been neglected on a federal level for decades, Chicago is making one of the nation’s largest coordinated investments, putting 30,000 residents to work over the next three years improving our roads, rails and runways; repairing our aged water system; and increasing access to gigabit-speed broadband. We are paying for these critical improvements through a combination of reforms, efficiencies and direct user fees, as well as creating the nation’s first city-level public-private infrastructure bank. Democrats should champion these kinds of innovative financing tools at a national level.

If we want to build a future in which the middle class can succeed, we must continue the push for reform that the president began with Race to the Top, bringing responsibility and accountability to our teachers and principals.

Chicago has adopted its own Race to the Top for early childhood education, allowing public schools, Head Start, charters and parochial schools to compete for dollars by improving the quality of their pre-kindergarten programs. In addition, this year Chicago Public Schools put into effect a 30 percent increase in class time, which means that when today’s kindergartners graduate high school, they will have benefited from 2½ more years’ worth of education.

In partnership with leading private-sector companies, we reengineered our six community colleges to focus each on skills training for jobs in one of Chicago’s six key growth fields. Democrats can be the party that closes the nation’s skills gap by making our community colleges a vital link between people looking for jobs and companies looking for skilled workers.

The strength of these investments is proven in the number of people we’re putting back to work: Chicago is first in the nation in terms of increase in employed residents, and for several months we have led the nation in year-over-year employment increases. We added 42,500 residents to the workforce in the past year alone — 8,000 more than the next highest U.S. city…

If Democrats develop innovative policies that help Americans compete in a global economy, we will outperform Republicans on Election Day. It’s that simple.

I’ve made this argument before (see here): Rahm Emanuel is more of a pro-business Democrat. As he notes in this article, he is in the mold of Bill Clinton who was willing to do what it takes to add jobs and fuel growth (illustrated by his recent push for digital billboards on city property alongside busy highways). And thus far, Emanuel has been able to push through his agenda in Chicago.

However, two things might hold back his arguments on the national level:

1. How much do Democrats and other Americans want government  to work closely private firms and corporations? Emanuel is a fan of public-private partnerships but people on both sides may not like this idea much.

2. Critics will charge that Chicago is hardly a model for others to emulate. Crime? Residential segregation? Massive budget issues? Battles with local unions? Underperforming schools?

I imagine some other big-city mayors might argue their cities could provide better models for the whole country. It would be fascinating to see a number of them respond with different visions.

(One last question: how much of this argument is simply boosterism from the mayor of the city’s third largest city?)

Improving the word cloud: NYT adds rates of word usage and comparisons between groups

I’m generally not a big fan of word clouds but one of students recently pointed out to me an example from the New York Times that makes some improvements: looking at the rates of word usage at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. (Click through to see the interactive graphic.) Here is how I think this improves on a typical word cloud:

1. It doesn’t display word frequency but rather the rate of the word usage. Thus, we get an idea of how often the words were used in comparison to all the words that were said. Frequencies by themselves don’t tell you much but this helps put them into a context. (A note: I would like the graphic to include the total word usage for each convention so we have a quick idea of how many words were spoken).

2. The display also makes a comparison between the two political parties so we can see the relative word usage across two groups. This could run into the same problem as frequencies – just because one group uses the term more doesn’t necessarily mean they think it is more important – but we can start getting some clues into the differences in how Republicans and Democrats made a case for their party.

Overall, this is an improvement over the typical word cloud (make your own at wordle.net) and helps us start analyzing the tens of thousands of words spoken at the conventions. Of course, we would need a more complete analysis, probably including multiple coders, to really get at what was conveyed through the words (and that doesn’t even get at the visuals, body language, presentation).

Kotkin: Obama coalition now about urban professionals, not blue collar workers

Joel Kotkin writes about the shift in the Democratic coalition under President Obama away from blue collar workers and toward urban professionals:

The gentrification of the Democratic Party has gone too far to be reversed in this election. After decades of fighting to win over white working- and middle-class families, Democrats under Obama have set them aside in favor of a new top-bottom coalition dominated by urban professionals—notably academics and members of the media—single women, and childless couples, along with ethnic minorities.

Rather than representing, as Chris Christie and others on the right suggest, the old, corrupt Chicago machine, Obama in fact epitomizes the city’s new political culture, as described by the University of Chicago’s Terry Nichols Clark, that greatly deemphasizes white, largely Catholic working-class voters, the self-employed, and people involved in blue-collar industries…

The traditional machine provided him with critical backing early in his political career, but Obama owes his success to new groups that have taken center stage in the increasingly liberal post-Clinton Democratic party: the urban “creative class” made up mostly of highly-educated professionals, academics, gays, single people, and childless couples. It’s a group Clark once called “the slimmer family.” Such people were barely acknowledged and even mistreated by the old machine; now they are primary players in the “the post-materialistic” party. The only holdovers from the old coalition are ethnic minorities and government workers…

Focused on the “upstairs” part of the new political culture, the administration—confident in minority support—has done very little materially to improve the long-term prospects of those “downstairs.” Minorities, in fact, have done far worse under this administration than virtually any in recent history, including that of the hapless George W. Bush. In 2012, African-American unemployment stands at the highest level in decades; 12 percent of the nation’s population, blacks account for 21 percent of the nation’s jobless. The picture is particularly dire Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where black unemployment is nearly 20%, and Detroit, where’s it’s over 25 percent.

Fascinating. If correct, this could be a boon for the powerful in big cities, people interested in big ideas and big projects and big returns, but not necessarily for those in the struggling neighborhoods. It’s too bad Kotkin doesn’t link this approach to specific policies Obama and the new Democrats have pursued – what exactly does this look like? Have the first four years provided concrete evidence that these Democrats are opposed to the suburbs, as conservatives suggest? On the other hand, we might look at the lack of policies directly aimed at the urban working and lower classes and draw conclusions from that.

I’ve suggested before that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a pragmatic kind of Democrat in the mold of Bill Clinton, liberal but clearly pro-business and interested in things like public-private partnerships. If Obama is more interested in the “upstairs” of the Democratic Party, does he approve of Emanuel’s moves and kinds of actions?