Sparse data on sparseness

Tuesday’s post was about the apparent correlation between population density and party affiliation, with counties trending Democratic as they reach the “tipping point” of 800 people per square mile. I noted that Democrat Barack Obama carried 49 of the 50 most crowded counties last year. The flipside is that the Republicans have an overwhelming advantage in the most sparsely settled parts of the United States.

The most sparsely populated county is Loving, in the Texas panhandle, which (as of 2011) has 94 residents spread over 669 miles. In the last presidential election, it voted 84 percent for Mitt Romney (54 votes to nine for Barack Obama), which is the same percentage Obama got in America’s most densely populated county, in Manhattan.


The next most thinly populated counties are Esmeralda, in Nevada (73 percent for Romney); Garfield, in Montana (89 percent for Romney); and King, in Texas (96 percent for Romney). In a nice bit of symmetry, Romney carried 49 of the 50 most sparsely populated counties; the exception was Culberson County, Texas, which is mostly Hispanic.

These 50 counties don’t help the GOP very much in presidential elections; not only do they have few votes, they are concentrated in safely Republican states like Nebraska and the Dakotas. But if we limit our scope to the loneliest counties with at least 30,000 people, Romney still did well, getting 60 percent in Nye County, Nevada; 75 percent in Elko County, Nevada; and 69 percent in Malheur County, Oregon.

The problem is that it’s quite difficult to find counties with a large number of people living far apart from each other. Dense counties are indisputably dense, but counties with low population densities can be skewed by boundaries. Arizona, for example, have some of the biggest counties in the U.S. by land area; most have low population densities, but some of them combine large uninhabited areas with rather thickly settled cities, so the average doesn’t really tell us anything.

I considered using the homeownership rate as a rough proxy for spread-out population, since it’s rare to a city to get very dense without much rental housing. The state with the highest homeownership rate is West Virginia, where 73.4 percent of housing units are owned by their occupants. West Virginia has indeed been solidly Republican since 1996, but Minnesota, with a homeownership rate of 73.0 hasn’t voted Republican since 1972. Then comes Delaware, Iowa, and Michigan, which all have an ownership rate of 72.1 percent but all voted Democratic in 2012.

Things may get clearer on the county level. Here are the five U.S. counties with the highest homeownership rates as of 2010, according to a Census Bureau report stored on my hard drive, and how they voted last year:

Keweenaw County, Michigan (homeownership: 89.8 percent), went 56 percent for Romney.

Sumter County, Florida (homeownership: 89.7 percent) went 67 percent for Romney.

Alcona County, Michigan (homeownership: 89.6 percent), went 59 percent for Romney.

Morgan County, Utah (homeownership: 89.1 percent), went 89 percent for Romney.

Powhatan County, Virginia (homeownership: 88.5 percent), went 72 percent for Romney.

I wanted to dig a little deeper, but the Census Bureau website is down until the federal shutdown ends (despite it being the most essential website ever).

So the search for a demographic tipping point that favors Republicans will have to wait…

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
4 years ago
Why don't you try to find out what is behind population density. It may be that those who are susceptible to one message or the other seek certain places to live and the density of the living place has nothing to do with how they will vote. For example, family size, married vs. single, income distribution, ethnic background etc.. See what correlates highly with population density whenever the federal government starts to work again,


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