Analyzing Swing States: Colorado, Part 4

This is the fourth part of a series of posts analyzing the swing state Colorado. It will focus on the complex territory that constitutes the Democratic base in Colorado. The last part can be found here.

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

Democratic Colorado

In American politics, the Democratic base is almost always more complex than the Republican base, a fact which is largely due to complex historical factors. Democrats wield a large and heterogeneous coalition – one which often splinters based on one difference or another. The Republican base is more cohesive.

The same is true for Colorado. Republican Colorado generally consists of rural white Colorado and parts of suburban white Colorado. Democratic Colorado is more difficult to characterize.

A look into President Barack Obama’s strongest counties provides some insight:

Link to Image of Obama's Strongest Counties in Colorado, 2008 Presidential Election

The Republican counties pictured here are fairly similar: they are thinly populated, homogeneously white rural counties. The Democratic counties, on the other hand, are quite different. There are four facets to Colorado’s Democratic base, and each facet is represented in the picture above.

Denver and Boulder

As the post focusing on the Republican base explained, the red-colored counties above constituted 1.2% of the total vote in 2008. A Republican who wins Colorado will win these places, but they are not necessary to win the state.

The same is not true for a Democrat who wins Colorado. The blue-colored counties – or, more specifically, Denver and Boulder – are absolutely essential for a Democratic candidate to win Colorado.

The map below illustrates this fact:

Link to Image of Colorado Margins, 2008 Presidential Election

As is evident by the map, Denver County and Boulder County are the two foundations of the Democratic base in Colorado. Mr. Obama gained a margin of 221,570 votes from the two counties. Without the cities of Boulder and Denver, Mr. Obama would have lost Colorado – by around 6,500 votes.

Cities are the mainstay of the Democratic Party in modern-day America, and so it is unsurprising that the Democratic base in Colorado rests upon two cities. Yet not all Democratic cities are alike. Boulder and Denver represent two dramatically different types of cities, both of which vote Democratic.

Boulder is a stronghold of Democratic liberalism; in 2000 it gave Green Party candidate Ralph Nader 11.8% of its vote. Like most liberal places in America (San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, the state of Massachusetts) the median resident of Boulder is richer than the median resident of the United States. Boulder is also more homogeneous than the United States; whites compose something like four out of five people in Boulder County. In this, Boulder is also not much different from most liberal places either.

Denver, in contrast, has more in common with machine-cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit. Like these cities, Denver is poorer than the United States. Another commonality is the high number of minorities: Hispanics are more than one-third the total population, non-Hispanic whites less than half. Places like San Francisco and Seattle are more Democratic than liberal; places like Denver are the opposite. On the other hand, in 2000 Mr. Nader also got 5.86% of Denver’s vote – indicating the presence of a substantial liberal bloc.

Electorally, however, these differences do not matter. Both Denver and Boulder vote consistently and powerfully Democratic, and will continue doing so in the foreseeable future.

Rural Democratic Colorado

Colorado and Denver, however, constituted only two of the five blue-colored counties in the first map. The other three are rural, thinly populated, and highly Democratic areas. This may sound strange at first, given the extent of Democratic weakness in rural America. Yet the Democratic parts of rural Colorado have either one of two characteristics.

The first characteristic is indicated by the picture below:

Link to Image of Colorado Hispanics, 2000 Census

This map uses 2000 Census data to provide a picture of Colorado’s Hispanic population. In 2000 Latinos constituted 17.1% of Colorado; today their numbers have risen to 19.9% of the state population.

Latinos tend to be concentrated in two places: Denver and the areas to its northeast, and a broad band stretching from south-central to south-east Colorado. The latter areas tend to be rural, thinly populated, and the poorest places in Colorado. Due to the high numbers of Latinos, most of these counties usually vote Democratic.

But not all of them. Latinos are not as reliably Democratic as blacks, and they also turn-out in lower numbers. Thus counties with high Latino population correlate with but do not ensure Democratic victory. In 2008, Senator John McCain won seven of the eighteen counties with greater than 20% Latino population. In 2000 Governor George W. Bush actually won Conejos County, where about 58.9% of the population is Latino. Out of the rural counties above, Democrats are only guaranteed victory in the south-central band.

Ski resorts function as another characteristic of rural Democratic Colorado:

Link to Map of Colorado Ski Resorts

For whatever reason, rural counties dominated by ski resorts vote strongly Democratic. These counties are largely located along Colorado’s Front Range. In two of them Mr. Obama won over 70% of the vote: Pitkin County and San Miguel County. Both are home to famous ski resorts: Aspen Mountain in the former and Telluride Ski Resort in the latter.

Ski resort counties are strange places for Democrats to do well in. They are the opposite of the poor Latino counties which also vote Democratic. The people who live in them are generally quite rich, quite famous, and quite white. Rich, 90% non-Hispanic white San Miguel County does not sound at first glance like a Democratic stronghold. Yet when described this way, San Miguel County looks a lot like another Democratic place: Massachusetts.


The counties that form the Democratic base form the shape of a “C.” A strong Democratic candidate will expand and fatten the “C.” A strong Republican candidate will cut into the “C” and often split it in two.

President Barack Obama’s 9.0% victory in Colorado provides one illustration of this Democratic “C”:

Link to Image of Colorado, 2008 Presidential Election

In this “C,” all four elements of the Democratic base in Colorado are present. Denver and Boulder form the top part of the “C, which is augmented by suburban Denver counties which Mr. Obama also won. The rural ski resort counties on the Front Range form the left side of the “C,” and the rural Latino counties compose the bottom part.

President George W. Bush’s 8.4% victory in 2000, on the other hand, provides an instance of a Republican breaking the Democratic “C”:

Link to Image of Colorado, 2000 Presidential Election

Mr. Bush makes inroads everywhere: both rural ski resort counties, rural Latino counties, and the Denver-Boulder metropolis are much more Republican. The Democratic “C” is just present, but barely so.

Unlike other states, therefore, it is relatively easy to tell whether the state is voting for a Democrat or Republican just by looking at a county map. A Democratic victory will look like Mr. Obama’s map. A Republican victory will look like Mr. Bush’s map. This is unlike a state such as New York or Illinois, where Democrats or Republicans can win a 5% victory under the same county map.




New York’s Republican Primary and New York Politics, Part 2

This is the second part of two posts analyzing New York’s recent Republican primary. It will focus upon Republican weakness in New York City, as revealed by the primary. The previous part can be found here.

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

New York City in the Republican Primary

One of the more interesting things about American politics is the rural-urban divide. The weakness of the modern Republican Party in urban areas is quite astounding. Much of this has to do with the history of the American city, especially the way in which many cities have become reservoirs of poor minorities.

The Republican gubernatorial primary constituted a particularly powerful demonstration of Republican weakness in American cities. To illustrate this, let’s look at a map of turn-out in businessman Carl Paladino’s victory over former representative Rick Lazio:

Link to Turn-out Map of New York, 2010 Republican Gubernatorial Primary

This map shows the vote cast by each county as a percentage of the total vote cast in the primary. Erie County, for instance, cast 46,054 votes in the primary. Since 442,608 people voted in total, the county cast 10.41% of the total primary vote.

The turn-out map reveals some fascinating patterns. The biggest counties in the Republican primary were in Buffalo and Long Island. High number of Republicans also voted in Rochester, Syracuse, and Westchester County (north of New York City).

On the other hand, New York City participation in the Republican gubernatorial primary was dismal. Fewer people voted in the five boroughs combined than in Erie County (Buffalo). More than twice as many people voted in all Long Island than in New York City. In the Bronx, 2358 people decided to participate in the Republican primary. This is in a place where an estimated 1,382,793 people live.

Compare these figures to 2008 presidential election:

Link to Turn-out Map of New York, 2008 Presidential Election

Here we see New York City punching at something closer to its actual strength. Like a giant magnet, New York City’s population pulls away influence from upstate New York and directs it to itself. Indeed, in the presidential election New York City is four times as important as it was in the 2010 gubernatorial Republican primary – constituting 34.23% of the total vote, compared to 8.58% in the Republican primary.

This really says something about the state of the Republican Party in New York City.

New York City in the General Election

The above two maps do not really hammer in the importance of New York City. Stating that five boroughs hold one-third of a state’s vote is one thing, but actually seeing it is another.

The previous post contained an image of New York in the 2008 presidential election. This map only reflected President Barack Obama’s performance in upstate New York, which he won by the high single digits. Here is a picture of said map:

Link to Map of Upstate New York, 2008 Presidential Election

(Note: Edited NYT Image. This map underestimates Mr. Obama's strength, since it doesn't include a number of absentee ballots and provisional ballots. Both, especially the absentees, tended to go more Democratic than the national average in 2008.)

This looks good for Mr. Obama. There is a lot of blue here and not a lot of red. In reality, however, most of the territory mapped above actually does not belong to the Democratic base. In a close election, almost all of these counties would go strongly Republican. These are the places that generally voted for Carl Paladino.

The real area of Democratic power is in New York City. Let’s add New York City to the above map:

Link to Map of All New York, 2008 Presidential Election

Mr. Obama looks really good here; indeed, the blue margins are so large that it is hard to comprehend their magnitude.

Concluding Thoughts

All in all, the divide between New York City’s importance in the Republican primaries and its importance in the general election is quite amazing. It really points to what the Republican coalition of voters is like today. Cities are almost an afterthought; most Republicans assume they will vote Democratic anyways, and so they don’t even bother to compete.

In some states this can be a wise concession. In most states taking the suburbs and the rural areas – occasionally, winning just the rural areas – is enough to win a state election. Cities are not always necessary to win. On the other hand, they certainly are useful to win elections, especially in a state like New York.

Republican candidate Carl Paladino does not look like he will win the general election. Originally trailing Democratic Attorney General Andrew Cuomo 2-to-1, the Republican national wave has closed this to a high single-digit gap. This, however, will be hard to surmount – for much of the remaining gap lies in winning New York City voters, almost none of whom participated in the primary electorate which chose Mr. Paladino.



New York’s Republican Primary and New York Politics, Part 1

This is the first part of two posts analyzing New York’s recent Republican primary. It will focus upon the upstate-downstate divide revealed by the primary. The next part can be found here.

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

The 2010 Republican Gubernatorial Primary

On September 14th 2010 the Republican Party held its primary in New York. In the gubernatorial primary, party favorite Rick Lazio was defeated by the Tea Party Candidate: businessman Carl Paladino. Mr. Paladino won a comprehensive victory, with 62% of the vote to Mr. Lazio’s 38%.

In the long run, this primary does not matter much – if at all. By next month the primary will all but be forgotten by even the most politically intense folk. Most Americans probably weren’t even aware that there was a primary in the first place.

Yet, whatever its long-term importance, the primary constitutes a valuable tool for exploring New York’s electoral geography. Mr. Paladino’s victory revealed two interesting facts of New York politics. This post will explore the first one.

The Upstate-Downstate Divide

Picture the state of New York, and most Americans will think of a certain city. This fact has long frustrated the many folks who live in upstate New York – which contains more than seven or eight million people, depending on how one defines upstate.

New York state politics have thus been dominated by the divide between upstate and downstate. Upstate generally votes Republican on a local level; downstate votes heavily Democratic. The divide is also apparent in the battle over whether resources are to be spent upstate or in New York City.

On the presidential level, this pattern is relatively hard to discern:

Link to Image of Upstate New York, 2008 Presidential Election

A look at upstate New York in the 2008 presidential election shows President Barack Obama dominating. While downstate New York casts an extremely Democratic ballot, upstate New York also votes for the blue side.

Indeed, Democrats have actually won upstate New York for the past five elections. This table indicates how New York has voted in several recent elections:

Link to Image of Table of New York Upstate and Downstate Voting Patterns in Recent Elections

Only in 1988 does Governor Mike Dukakis lose the upstate vote, and even then Mr. Dukakis does fairly respectably. (Note: This table includes suburban Westchester and Rockland County as part of upstate; an alternative definition may not do so). Thus, it is somewhat difficult to find a difference between upstate and downstate New York when looking at presidential elections.

This was not the case with New York’s Republican gubernatorial primary. Here is a map of the results:

Link to Image of 2010 Republican Gubernatorial Primary

This is a tremendous regional divide. Upstate New York votes overwhelmingly for Mr. Paladino, while downstate gives Mr. Lazio a strong vote, despite his overall poor performance. Indeed, in Erie County (Buffalo) Mr. Paladino actually got 93% of the vote. On the other hand, Long Island Suffolk County gave his opponent two-thirds of its support.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Paladino’s home is located in Buffalo, while Mr. Lazio represented a congressional district in central Long Island. Mr. Lazio was also born in Suffolk County. His long history with downstate New York led to considerable discontent upstate, and constituted one factor behind its landslide rejection of Mr. Lazio.

There is one final thing that must be noted, however. While Mr. Paladino definitely looks like a winner under the map above, the 3:2 split may look strange to seasoned observers of New York politics. Mr. Lazio, after all, is winning both New York City and its suburbs. Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens are supporting him by double-digits – while he is running very strongly in Long Island.

Democrats have won New York with similar maps.

As it turns out, Mr. Lazio would have indeed done a bit under general election circumstances. That is, if Mr. Lazio had won the same percent of the vote in each county in the 2008 presidential election, he would have gained 40% of the vote. This is not an enormous change, but in a close election it means the difference between victory and defeat.

This seeming contradiction lies at the heart of another interesting truth that New York’s Republican primary revealed: namely, that Republicans do not exist in New York City. The next post will explore this strange phenomenon.






Analyzing Swing States: Colorado, Part 3

This is the third part of a series of posts analyzing the swing state Colorado. It will focus on the swing areas in Colorado – the parts that will vote for both Democrats and Republicans. The fourth part can be found here.

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

Swing Colorado

The swing areas of Colorado lie on the edges of the Democratic base in Colorado, which forms a rough “C” shape (more on this in the next post). They can be mapped as below:

Link to Image of Swing Colorado, 1992-2008
This map incorporates five presidential elections, from 1992 to 2008. Republicans won the state three times; Democrats twice. Of the swing counties pictured here, President Bill Clinton did better in the rural swing areas, mostly in southern Colorado. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, had his strength in several highly populated, suburban swing counties.

Swing Colorado is, like the Republican base, divided into two quite different domains. The first domain is composed by the rural, “Clinton” counties. This region has much in common with the Republican parts of rural Colorado; it is generally poorer and extremely thinly populated.

The difference lies with two things: Hispanics and ski resorts. Areas of rural Colorado with high numbers of Hispanics and ski resorts vote solidly Democratic; areas with low numbers vote solidly Republican. Swing counties generally have enough Hispanics or ski resorts to be competitive for Democrats, but not enough to automatically vote Democratic.

Interestingly, the rural swing counties with ski resorts have become more Democratic over the years, while the rural swing counties with Hispanics have become less so. Mr. Obama generally did worse in rural Hispanic Colorado than Mr. Clinton. Whether because the Hispanic population is locally in decline in this thinly populated area, or because Hispanics are voting more Republican, is uncertain.

The second part of swing Colorado consists of a set of three suburban counties  surrounding the Denver metropolis. These counties used to vote solidly Republican, which was why Colorado was Republican for so long. Here is how they voted in the 2000 presidential election:

Link to Image of Swing Colorado, 2000 Presidential Election

The counties – Arapahoe County, Jefferson County, and Larimar County – are pictured by the three large red circles around Denver and Boulder. As is apparent, their importance is of a magnitude above that of the rural swing counties. Indeed, in 2008 the three counties composed 30.8% of the votes cast in Colorado. Jefferson County had more votes cast than any other county in the entire state.

Winning these suburbs, therefore, is naturally important. Until recently they generally leaned Republican. As swing areas, Republicans usually didn’t win them by landslides; they generally had a ceiling of around 65% of the vote. But they won them, and therefore they won Colorado.

It is the shift in places like these that is responsible for recent Democratic gains in Colorado. Here is how swing Colorado voted in 2008:

Link to Image of Swing Colorado, 2008 Presidential Election 

Mr. Obama won Arapahoe County, Jefferson County, and Larimer County by 12.91%, 8.91%, and 9.73% respectively. Combined, he came out with a 77,067 vote margin out of swing Colorado. This was enough to erase the Senator John McCain’s margins in his two strongest counties – El Paso (Colorado Springs) and Douglas Counties. Mr. Obama also did this out of historically Republican territory.

Demographically, the three counties above share certain similarities. For suburbs, they are actually not that rich; median household income is only slightly above the national average (Jefferson County is richest). The counties are also fairly homogeneous; approximately four out of five residents in Jefferson and Larimer County are white and non-Hispanic. Arapahoe County, on the other hand, is more diverse; non-Hispanic whites compose about 65% of the population (a mirror of the country, in fact). Unsurprisingly, Mr. Obama did best in Arapahoe County.

To be fair, Mr. Obama’s performance in Colorado’s formerly Republican-leaning suburbs probably constitutes something of a ceiling for Democrats. Mr. Obama did extremely well in exurbs like these throughout the nation, in both the primaries and the general election. The housing crisis did not hurt things, either. A different Democrat might rely less on these suburbs.

Nevertheless, the very fact that a Democrat can now win places like Larimer County is something of an achievement for the party. Indeed, almost all of swing Colorado constitutes formerly Republican-leaning territory that Democrats have made competitive over the past two decades. Democrats have also carved out a new and many-sided base in Colorado during this time period. The next post will examine the complex elements that make up Colorado’s Democratic base.



Why Republicans Will Never Nominate Sarah Palin for President

Former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin is one of the most influential Republican figures today. Her “mamma-grizzly” endorsements have won a surprising number of victories, and much of the Republican base holds admiration for her. It is almost natural, then, that many pundits consider her as a front-runner or strong candidate for the 2012 Republican nomination.

Democrats like this. They salivate at the prospect of a Palin candidacy, believing that her unpopularity with non-Republicans will enable any standard-fare Democratic candidate to crush her in a presidential election. This belief is probably true; it would take a remarkable set of circumstances for Ms. Palin to win a general election against Mr. Obama.

But Republicans know just as well as Democrats do that Ms. Palin could not win a general election. That is why they will never nominate former governor Sarah Palin for president, no matter how popular she is amongst the Republican base.

American voters are incredibly brutal when it comes to the test of viability. If voters do not think that a candidate has a chance of winning, they will abandon that candidate in the blink of an eye. A vote for a candidate they like but who cannot win, the logic goes, is effectively a vote for a candidate they really dislike and who stands a strong chance of winning. Better to vote for somebody who stands a chance of defeating the candidate they really dislike.

This problem has bedeviled political campaigns throughout American history. In the 2008 presidential primaries, victims included John Edwards and Bill Richardson on the Democratic side, and Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani on the Republican side. It is a problem that faces every third-party candidacy in the United States - and precious few of them overcome it.

It is also something that will curse Ms. Palin if she ever runs in the Republican primary. Ms. Palin cannot possibly win in the general election, her opponents will charge, so a vote for her is effectively a vote for President Barack Obama. There is nothing Ms. Palin can really say to this, because it is true. While Republicans might personally like Ms. Palin, they will not vote for her. She might be polling well right now, but that support is ephemeral. It will melt away as quickly as Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s did in 2008.

All in all, this is probably a good thing. There is always the chance, of course, that Ms. Palin could actually get elected if nominated. This could happen, for instance, if unemployment is at double-digits in 2012. And Sarah Palin, for all her political celebrity, would probably not make a very good president.





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