Which is which? One map shows the outcome of George W. Bush v. John Kerry (Fall 2004), the other shows Hillary Clinton v. Barack Obama (Spring 2008).
Maps: Dave Leip

The shape of the coming presidential campaign is already visible in two maps of Missouri. The first shows county-by-county results from the 2004 race between John Kerry and George Bush. The second pictures the 2008 primary, Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton.

The two maps are strikingly similar. Kerry and Obama won St. Louis and Kansas City, the state’s densely packed urban areas. Bush/Clinton won everything else. The Democratic primary election, a race between equally liberal senators, polarized this state just as sharply as had the last two presidential races — between ideological opposites.

There’s been lots of talk about whether Sen. Obama can win the “blue collar vote.” But the Democratic candidate should be concentrating less on economic class and more on geography — alert to how Americans have clustered in communities based on ways of life. It's these lifeways, increasingly, that are key to political behavior rather than the older, and now often misleading, measures of age, education or wealth.

I asked Randy Penrod, the Republican county chair in fast-growing Scott County, Minnesota, how he could tell a Republican neighborhood from a Democratic one. “I have a theory,” said the 285-pound rugby player. “The farther you are from another human being, the more likely you are to be a Republican.”

He was right. In 1976, the average Republican and Democratic counties were about the same size — had roughly the same number of voters. By 2004, counties that voted for John Kerry had eight times the number of people per square mile as did the communities backing George Bush. There is now a gradient to politics that slopes more Democratic as population density increases.

Obama’s support in ’08 was urban in the extreme. He took Chicago by over 400,000 votes, and he beat Hillary Clinton by 1.44 million in southern cities, where he won more than 60 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Obama lost the rural south in a landslide. When Obama ventured outside the nation’s archipelago of cities, he lost in every region but one — breaking even with Clinton in the mountain West.

Though these were both close elections, the results in ’08 were lopsided, just as they had been four years earlier. In the 2004 presidential election, nearly half the voters lived in counties where the outcome was a landslide — one candidate won by more than 20 percentage points. Likewise, about half of the voters in the 2008 Democratic primary lived in landslide counties, as people voted in local solidarity.

“As people make lifestyle choices about where they live, it means whole neighborhoods adjust,” explained Matthew Dowd, President Bush’s chief strategist in ’04. It’s not a single issue that changes a community. Politics isn’t just about issues. It’s about ways of life, a place, a tribe. So candidates don’t gain voters one at a time, they win over “peoples.” When the election results began coming in for the Virginia governor’s race, in November 2005, Dowd said he could see that Republican neighborhoods were voting wholesale for Democrat Tim Kaine. Entire communities, he said, “shifted in groups.”

Thinking geographically, then, Sen. John McCain must find ways to win counties with greater population density, meaning he will try to move the Republican Party back into the suburbs that have been trending Democratic. That’s why we see the Republican touring the Everglades and talking about global warming as he trudges through the Cascade Mountains — scenes meant to inspire cul de sac residents with conservative tendencies and REI memberships.

Sen. Obama, meanwhile, has to find support in places with lower average population density. And so, two days after the last primaries, the Democratic nominee flew into Bristol, Virginia, an asphalt track/bluegrass music town where both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton won two-thirds of the vote.

Oh, and the maps…. The top map shows the county-by-county results of the 2008 Democratic primary. Hillary Clinton won the red counties (the redder the color, the higher her percentage). The second map comes from 2004, with the George Bush counties in blue.

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