The Democratic Party may have lost the 2016 presidential election but it solidified its hold on America’s major cities. While losing the Electoral College vote, Hillary Clinton matched or even exceeded Barack Obama’s landslide margins in these cities in the two previous elections.
From Boston to Los Angeles, in the Pacific Northwest as in the Deep South, cities are becoming ever more the isolated but still potent bastions of Democratic politics.
It is all part of what Texas author Bill Bishop called “the big sort” – the dramatic grouping of America into geographical enclaves where the overwhelming majority thinks and votes alike. In 1976, only 26 percent of all counties were what he called “landslide counties,” where presidential candidates won by 20 percentage points or more. In a recent article, Bishop said that no less than 60.4 percent of all counties are “landslide counties” now – hundreds of rural counties among them but America’s biggest cities, too.
For decades, post-election maps have graphically displayed the changing American political landscape, with the Republican Party commanding a vast red-colored sweep of America, while Democrats ruled the blue dots that represented the densely populated cities. The post-election maps this year made it clear that the red tide is rising and the blue dots shrinking – but that’s only in area, not population or political importance.
President Obama swept major cities by margins of 30 to 40, even 50, points in 2008 and 2012. It would have seemed impossible for Clinton to do better, especially in a losing effort nationally. But in many cities, that’s what she did. In the rest, she came close. For instance:
- Obama won Boston in 2008 by 77 percent to John McCain’s 21 percent, and again in 2016 by 77 percent to Mitt Romney’s 20 percent. Clinton won this year by 79 percent to Donald Trump’s 16 percent. (The results for Boston and for other cities in this report are not for the cities themselves but for their counties, which they all dominate.* In most states, available election returns are broken out by county, not by city. But available city statistics indicate the margins there are even starker. The city of Boston, for instance, went for Clinton by 81.7 percent to Trump’s 14.2 percent.)
- Los Angeles voted for Obama for 69 percent to 29 percent in 2008, by 68 percent to 29 percent in 2012, and for Clinton by 71 percent to 23 percent.
- Denver voted for Obama by 75 percent to 23 percent in 2008 and by 73 percent to 24 percent in 2012. It went for Clinton by 75 percent to 18 percent.
- Atlanta voted for Obama by 67 percent to 32 percent in 2008 and by 64 percent to 34 percent in 2012. This year, it went for Clinton by 69 percent to 27 percent.
- Seattle voted for Obama by 70 percent to 28 percent in 2008, and by 68 percent to 28 percent in 2012. It went for Clinton by 72 percent to 21 percent.
- Miami voted for Obama in 2008 by 58 percent to 42 percent and in 2012 by 61 percent to 37 percent. Clinton did even better, beating Trump there by 63 percent to 34 percent.
In some major cities Clinton failed to top Obama’s winning margins, but not by much. For instance:
- Obama won New York City by 79 percent to 20 percent in 2008 and by a huge 81 percent to 17 percent in 2012. Clinton took the city by 79 percent to 18 percent.
- Similarly, Obama won Chicago in 2008 by 74 percent to 24 percent and then by 76 percent to 23 percent in 2012. Clinton won Chicago by 74 percent to 21 percent.
Even in some major cities that Clinton lost, she closed the Republican gap. In Phoenix, McCain beat Obama by 53 percent to 44 percent. Romney beat the president in 2012 by 55 percent to 43 percent. Clinton lost Phoenix, too, but only by 49 percent to 45 percent.
Trump beat Clinton by nearly ten percentage points in Texas – but Clinton outpolled Obama in the state’s major cities:
- In Dallas, Obama won the city by 57 to 42 percent in 2008 and by 57 percent to 41 percent in 2012. Clinton turned Dallas into a landslide – 61 percent to 34 percent.
- Houston barely went for Obama, by 51 percent to 49 percent in 2008. He and Romney virtually tied in Houston in 2012. But Clinton easily beat Trump there, by 54 percent to 41 percent.
- Austin, always more reliably Democratic, voted for Obama by 64 percent to 35 percent in 2008 and by 60 percent to 36 percent in 2012. It voted for Clinton by 66 percent to 27 percent.
In the Midwestern states that put Trump over the top, Clinton’s strength slipped slightly in major cities. She won Des Moines by 52 percent to 40 percent, well down on Obama’s 2012 margin of 56 percent to 42 percent. Detroit had gone to Obama in 2008 by 74 percent to 25 percent, but Clinton won the city by only 66 percent to 29 percent. Similarly, Cleveland, which had given Obama identical margins of 69 percent to 30 percent in the two previous elections, voted for Clinton by 66 percent to 30 percent.
Clinton lost Ohio mostly because old industrial cities such as Dayton and Youngstown, which had gone solidly for Obama in 2008 and 21012, went for Trump this year. But in the state capital of Columbus, Clinton won by 60 percent to 34 percent, slightly up on Obama’s winning margins of 59 percent to 40 percent in 2008 and 60 percent to 38 percent in 2012.
Bishop’s 2008 book, The Big Sort, argued that Americans are deliberately sorting themselves into like-minded communities, where more and more people earn similar salaries, go to the same church, hold the same values, and vote the same way. Increasingly, he said, a majority of Americans have arranged their lives so they don’t have to hear something with which they disagree. And per his post-election update, that sorting is growing.
In 2004, he said, 48.7 percent of all voters in central cities lives in landslide counties: now, it’s up to 65.6 percent. Similarly, in 2004, 58.7 percent of all rural voters lived in landslide counties: now it’s up to an overwhelming 80.3 percent – the reason for all that red coloring on the nation’s political map.
Big city suburbs are more balanced, Bishop wrote. In 2004, 50.5 percent of suburban voters lived in landslide counties. In the next two elections, this dropped to about 44 percent. In the last election, it soared to 54.6 percent.
In 2004, 48.7 percent of voters in small cities – metro areas with fewer than 250,000 population -- lived in landslide counties: now it’s 64.7 percent. In rural areas near cities, the percentage of voters living in landslide counties has gone up from 52.7 percent in 2004 to 75 percent now, almost as dramatic as the percentage in more remote rural areas.
Bishop said the 2016 results showed a strong shift from Democrats to Republicans in small cities and rural counties.
In 2004, he said, President Bush got more than 40 percent of the votes in central cities. This year, Trump’s percentage of the central city vote was down to 32 percent. By contrast, Bush got 60 percent of the rural vote in 2004: Trump got nearly 65 percent.
More people are moving to cities, which is good news for Democratic candidates in 2020 and beyond. But with the electoral college weighted in favor of smaller states, this shift might not be enough to outweigh the growing Republican strength in rural areas and smaller cities.
* Note: The 2008 results cited here are taken from official results for each state posted by The New York Times. http://elections.nytimes.com/2008/results/states/president/texas.html is an example for Texas. For 2012 and 2016, I have relied on Politico for the best and clearest official results. See http://www.politico.com/2012-election/results/president/texas/ for 2012 and http://www.politico.com/2016-election/results/map/president/texas/ for 2016, again both for Texas, as an example; other states are similarly shown.