Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Robert David SullivanOctober 27, 2008

Maps dividing the nation into blue states and red states fail to capture the real differences and contradicting trends within what have been called, facetiously, the United States of Canada and Jesusland. One alternative is the four-region model (Northeast, South, Midwest, West) long used by the U.S. Census Bureau. But what kind of political description would apply to a “Midwest” that stretches from Detroit to Dodge City? Or to a “South” that includes both George W. Bush’s best county in 2004 (Ochiltree, Tex.) and his worst (Washington, D.C.)—as well as Barack Obama’s best county (Jefferson, Miss.) and his worst (Magoffin, Ky.) in this year’s Democratic primaries?

For such reasons I have developed a 10-region model, shown on the map (p. 21). These regions are roughly equal in voting strength (each cast about 12 million votes in the 2004 election), but each has a distinct history and political bent.

This year Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, seems to be focused on three goals: increase John Kerry’s narrow 2004 margin in the Hispanic-heavy region of El Norte (with the goal of winning Colorado and New Mexico and becoming competitive in Florida); erase the Republican Party’s customary solid lead in South Coast (winning Virginia and possibly North Carolina, plus going over the top in Florida); and reduce the Democrats’ often-huge deficit in Cumberland (allowing Obama to take Ohio and possibly Indiana). By contrast, if the late September polls are at all correct, the Republican nominee, John McCain, has only one viable strategy to counteract any Electoral College gains by Obama. He must capture Chippewa, which narrowly went for Kerry last time, to have a chance of winning the electoral votes of Michigan, Pennsylvania and possibly Minnesota and Wisconsin.

I assigned counties to the 10 political regions primarily on the basis of how they voted in presidential elections going back to 1948. (In the past 15 elections, no one has been elected president without carrying at least five of these regions.) In particular, I looked at changes from one election to the next, as opposed to the simple margins of victory by one party or another. I wanted to give a sense of where shifts in voting patterns led to shifts in party control of the White House. In 1960, for example, John F. Kennedy and the Democratic Party captured the White House by running nearly 10 points above Harry Truman’s 1948 showing in the heavily Catholic and urbanized Northeast corridor—thus compensating for Kennedy’s running well behind Truman in other parts of the country. And in 2000, George W. Bush ran 11 points above the previous Republican nominee, Bob Dole, in the oil-rich and military-influenced Comanche region, helping him to capture the electoral votes of Arkansas, Louisiana and, most crucially, Florida.

All but three of the regions are geographically coherent. The exceptions are Upper Coasts, which includes most of New England and the Pacific Northwest (both part of the Green Party base, if it had one); El Norte, which is based in the Southwest but also takes in the largely Latino area of Miami; and Frontier, which is based in the Rocky Mountains but also includes a slice of “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire (the Libertarian Party base, in its wildest dreams).

In 2004, Bush’s strongest region was Comanche, where he beat Kerry 63 to 36, and he scored solid wins in four other regions. Cumberland (60 to 40) has the nation’s highest percentage of non-Hispanic white residents (90 percent) and was George H. W. Bush’s best region when he unsuccessfully sought a second term in 1992. The sprawling Frontier region (58 to 40) was the strongest region for Ronald Reagan when he captured the White House in 1980. Southern Inland (58 to 42) was the only region to support Jimmy Carter in 1980 but has been reliably Republican ever since. South Coast (53 to 47) is the fastest-growing region and edges out Southern Inland for the highest share of African-American residents (24 percent).

Kerry won three regions with ease: Upper Coasts (60 to 38), the slowest-growing region; the Northeast Corridor (60 to 39), which barely beats the Upper Coasts as the most highly educated region; and Mega-Chicago (54 to 45). But his narrow margin in El Norte (51 to 48), where Hispanics make up 42 percent of the population, may have cost him Colorado and Florida. And a thin victory in Chippewa (also 51 to 48) probably doomed his efforts to carry Ohio.

The 2004 regional breakdown roughly corresponded with education patterns. The Democrats carried four of the five regions with the highest percentages of college graduates, losing only Frontier—and running especially badly in the highly educated suburbs of Kansas City, Omaha and Salt Lake City. Four of the remaining regions went for the Republicans, with Chippewa going against the flow. Flint, Mich., and Youngstown, Ohio, were among the areas with few college graduates but a strong majority of Democratic voters. But although Chippewa has a relatively small share of college graduates, it is second only to Upper Coasts in the percentage of the population that has graduated from high school, while the Democratic region of El Norte has the highest number of dropouts.

Kerry also carried four of the five most urbanized regions, losing only South Coast, thanks to poor showings in cities such as Jacksonville, Fla., and Virginia Beach, Va. Bush won the five most rural regions except for Chippewa, again, where he lost mostly rural counties close to the Canadian border from New York to Minnesota. These two exceptions are the regions most likely to switch parties this year, assuming a competitive election.

A few more variables help explain the regions’ distinct political characteristics. Between 2000 and 2004, Bush’s biggest jump (4.1 points) was in the Northeast Corridor, and the biggest increase within that region was 11 points in Staten Island. (He carried that borough but lost the rest of New York City.) He also got a bounce of at least three points in Southern Inland, El Norte, Comanche and Cumberland. His most anemic rise was in Mega-Chicago (1.2 points), where he was weighed down by a three-point drop in Columbus’s Franklin County, Ohio. That region also gave Obama his biggest margin in this year’s Democratic primaries (60 to 37 over Hillary Clinton). Obama also scored solid wins in South Coast and Southern Inland and narrow wins in the Northeast Corridor and Frontier. Clinton ran strongest in Cumberland (56 to 42) and easily won El Norte and Chippewa, while barely taking Upper Coasts and Comanche.

State by State

The 10 political regions do not award any electoral votes, of course, but they give big clues to what each candidate needs to do in order to carry “swing” states. Here is how some of the most hotly contested states are likely to play out.

Ohio. A top priority for Obama is to minimize his losses in the Cumberland section of the state that cost Kerry the presidency in 2004. That means, for example, reducing Bush’s 71-29 margin in Batavia’s Clermont County, on the Kentucky border. (This was the same margin as in 1988, when George H. W. Bush trounced Dukakis in Ohio.) In the Democratic primary, Obama generally fared poorly in this part of the state, but he won Cincinnati’s Hamilton County by a wide margin; a high turnout in that city could help offset inevitably lopsided losses elsewhere in southern Ohio.

At the same time, Obama must maximize his strength in the Mega-Chicago part of the state. That means pushing the Democratic trend in Franklin County, where Kerry’s 54 percent was six points better than Bill Clinton’s 1996 performance, and where Obama got a solid 57 percent in the Democratic primary. Finally, Obama must win the tie-breaking Chippewa region. Watch the city of Mentor in Lake County, east of Cleveland, which went for Clinton by two points in 1996 and for Bush by three points in 2004.

Pennsylvania. This is McCain’s best chance to compensate for any Bush states that Obama is able to pick up. With Obama likely to run up a big margin in the Northeast Corridor’s Philadelphia area, McCain must maximize his party’s natural strength in Cumberland. That means pumping up his percentages in Lancaster and York counties, where Bush finished in the mid 60s in 2004 but ran slightly behind his father’s showings in 1988. The rub is that Obama carried Lancaster in the Democratic primary and got a respectable 45 percent in York. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton crushed Obama nearly three to one in the Scranton area, which gave a solid incumbency bounce to Bush in 2004, but McCain cannot count on a boost from the birthplace of the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Joe Biden.

A win in Pennsylvania also hinges on McCain’s at least breaking even in the Chippewa part of the state. One bellwether is Washington County, just outside Pittsburgh, which Kerry carried by less than one point in 2004 and where Obama got only 29 percent in this spring’s primary.

Virginia. The Northeast Corridor piece of the state (small but containing several populous suburbs of Washington, D.C.) has recently become safe Democratic territory, but this is another state where Obama must watch his Cumberland flank. For example, the Blue Ridge area’s Roanoke County (which surrounds, but does not include, the city of the same name) jumped from 60 percent to 65 percent for Bush in 2004. Obama, who lost the county by 11 points in the primary, must prevent another Republican uptick here.

But as in Florida (see below), a win in the South Coast may be the key to statewide victory. Virginia Beach (noted above) vaulted from 56 percent to 59 percent Republican in 2004, and Obama (who received 65 percent of the city’s vote in the primary) probably has to keep his loss here down to single digits. A bellwether for both Virginia and the South Coast region may be Henrico County, outside of Richmond. Bush won it 54 to 46, but he actually slipped a bit here between 2000 and 2004.

Florida. Assuming that the Republicans get their customary landslide wins in the Comanche city of Pensacola and Southern Inland counties on the north Gulf Coast (and that the Democrats rebound to a solid lead in El Norte’s Miami), this swing state should be decided in the swing region of South Coast. Look to Orlando’s Orange County, which Kerry won by fewer than 1,000 votes last time. Obama lost the county by nine points in the Democratic primary, but that’s considerably better than he did in Florida as a whole, where candidates did not actively campaign because the contest was not sanctioned by the party. A solid Orange County win for Obama would probably give him the state and make the electoral votes of Ohio irrelevant.

Michigan. The Cumberland part of the state is small, but it represents the vanguard of the Republican vote in a state that McCain would love to deliver for the Republicans for the first time in two decades. Watch Jackson County, west of Ann Arbor. Bush jumped from 52 percent to 56 percent in 2004; if McCain cannot bump that figure up a little, he probably cannot win the state. As for the Democratic-leaning Mega-Chicago part of the state, keep an eye on three counties. In 1988, Dukakis received 60 percent in Detroit’s Wayne County, 37 percent in affluent suburban Oakland County and 39 percent in the more blue-collar suburban Macomb County. By 2004, the respective numbers for Kerry were 69 percent, 50 percent and 49 percent. McCain must arrest that trend if he is to be competitive statewide. Finally, McCain has to get a boost in the Chippewa region. Sparsely populated Gogebic County, on the Upper Peninsula next to Wisconsin, may be a good test case. Bush received 47 percent here in both 2000 and 2004; if McCain and Sarah Palin cannot get a majority this fall, they are not likely to take Michigan’s 17 electoral votes. McCain’s announcement in early October that he was pulling resources from Michigan has likely put the Wolverine state out of reach.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

I am always going to be let down by humans, but never by the One who is fully human and fully divine.
Joe Hoover, S.J.June 13, 2024
Sea-Watch crew members help a migrant boarding a rescue boat in the Mediterranean Sea on July 23, 2022. African bishops are expressing pain at seeing young people migrate to lives of uncertainty. (CNS photo/Nora Bording, Sea-Watch handout via Reuters)
Both the United States and the European Union are experiencing a period when double-digit percentages of foreign-born people have been able to achieve legal residency.
Kevin ClarkeJune 13, 2024
The Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity released a study document on the role of the bishop of Rome and how that role is viewed by other Christian churches.
Gerard O’ConnellJune 13, 2024
Pope Francis is scheduled to sit down with U.S. President Joe Biden and eight other heads of state in a series of private bilateral meetings during the Group of Seven on Friday, June 14.