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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Opinion How geography and religion drive America’s blue vs. red divide

Opinion How geography and religion drive America’s blue vs. red divide

A weathered American flag outside a Baptist church in Gallant, Ala., on Nov. 12, 2017. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

“After Barack Obama’s 2012 victory, political commentators, including some Republicans, fixated on the racial divide. Democrats, they (wrongly) predicted, would win most elections in the future because voters of color were overwhelmingly backing them. The past few years, education has replaced race as the explanation for everything. Journalists and officials in both parties at times speak as if every Democratic voter has a college degree and none of the Republicans do.

But race and education aren’t the only things driving how Americans vote — and arguably aren’t even the most important. Religion, geography and other factors play major roles. Democrats and the broader anti-Trump coalition are too fixated on the education divide and are ignoring everything else.

There is a big split between the nearly 70 percent of American voters who identify as Christians and lean strongly Republican as a group, and the 30 percent who say they aren’t Christians and are much more Democratic, according to polling this cycle and the results from the 2020 and 2022elections. Another fissure is between those who live in rural areas (very Republican) compared with those in urban ones (very Democratic).

Religion and population density often outweigh race and education in terms of how people vote. White evangelical Christians, even those with college degrees, overwhelmingly vote for Republicans. Asian Americans who are Christian are much more conservative than their non-Christian counterparts. White people without degrees who live in urban areas are significantly more liberal than those in rural areas.

Beyond the urban-rural divide, another geographic factor that is perhaps underappreciated in shaping Americans’ political views is the state they live in. Blue states aren’t just full of atheists, urbanites, minorities and college graduates; red ones aren’t just evangelical Christians, Whites and people without degrees living on farms. States have political cultures and institutions that push people toward certain ideological and partisan views. President Biden’s biggest margin of victory in 2020 was in Vermont, even though it’s one of the Whitest and most rural states.

Age matters, too, largely because voters under 30 tend to be very Democratic-leaning. As does race, mainly because of the huge difference between White voters (about 40 percent back Democrats) and Black ones (more than 80 percent support Democrats.) And there is a growing diploma divide, particularly among White voters. (College graduates are increasingly Democratic, while those without degrees are more Republican.)

A gender gap exists, too. (Women prefer Democrats, men Republicans.) But it’s much smaller than some of the other divides.

The biggest divides and predictors of voting are, of course, ideology and partisanship. Democrats and liberals overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates; Republicans and conservatives back Republican politicians. But ideology and partisanship are shaped by other factors.

People often become a Democrat or a Republican because that’s what their friends or family are and then adopt the policy views of that party. So getting someone to join a church with lots of right-leaning members might be a more effective way to get them to vote Republican than convincing them of the value of tax cuts for economic growth.

Why does understanding these divides matter? First of all, I worry my industry (the news media) is presenting a flawed view of how people come to their political identities, positions on issues and preferred candidates. The description by many journalists during Obama’s presidency of a monolithic, left-leaning voters of color bloc was overly simplistic. But replacing that with a similarly monolithic frame of right-leaning voters without degrees isn’t any better.

Secondly, I worry those I agree with politically (people opposed to the Republican Party and former president Donald Trump) are misreading the electorate. Both centrist and progressive Democrats have spent much of the past eight years openly discussing their plans to win back the working class, defined as people without bachelor’s degrees. They often publicly brag about initiatives that will create jobs specifically for people who didn’t graduate from college.

I largely agree with those policies. But Democrats aren’t gaining much ground among people without degrees.

There are many reasons for the party’s struggles among these voters, such as continued high prices for some goods and Biden’s age. But I suspect we are also seeing the results of a flawed political analysis and resulting strategy. No one self-identifies as “Jake without a college degree.” There are no institutions or clubs that people join specifically to connect with other noncollege graduates. I doubt most of the 62 percent of American adults without a bachelor’s degree consider themselves part of some collective working class.

Americans do describe themselves as Christians, residents of small towns or, alternatively, people who like to live in urban, walkable areas. Christians congregate in specific places (churches). So do non-Christians (mosques, synagogues). Christians have a set of shared values; so do Muslims and Jewish people. People who prefer cities self-identify as tolerant and inclusive; rural Americans often say they value tightknit communities.

“When it comes to understanding people’s political views and behaviors, their sense of identity is much more important than demographics alone,” said Lauren Goldstein, a pollster at the left-leaning firm Change Research.

I wish the Democratic Party, instead of defining its problem principally as noncollege voters over the last several years, had also tried to appeal to people based on these other identities. There hasn’t been a deep, sustained effort by the party to reduce its margins of defeat in small towns or to develop a rural Democratic identity with corresponding policies.

It’s obviously tricky to appeal to Christians without turning off people of other faiths or violating the principles of separation of church and state. But Obama gave memorable speeches connecting faith and religion to politics and policy. So did Bill Clinton. It’s unclear why Democrats collectively don’t spend more time emphasizing how their policies come from religious values such as charity and forgiveness, even if they aren’t quoting the Bible constantly.

On the flip side, the party could take advantage of the fact that living in a densely populated area and/or not being a Christian tend to make people more likely to vote Democratic. I wrote last year about the potential value of creating church-like institutions for the growing ranks of Americans who aren’t Christians. Perhaps no one would join those. But surely it’s worth people on the left trying to establish new institutions that connect urbanites and nonbelievers with one another, instead of pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into boring TV ads every election cycle.

The speech Obama gave at the Democratic National Convention 20 years ago, in which he downplayed the divide between blue states and red states, was great political strategy but terrible political analysis. We have blue and red states and, really, blue and red people. We are very divided. Understanding the real divides is a key step to addressing them.“

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