"In 1259... Supporters of (the King's) cause appeared among the poor and turbulent elements in London and the towns... The Barons (in opposition to the King) commanded greater sympathy in the country..." (Churchill, A History of the English Speaking Peoples, Vol. 1, Chapter "The Mother of Parliaments.")
Suppose the week before the election, Barack Obama had issued his staff a stunning directive. If he won, rather than having his victory rally in Grant Park, in Chicago, he would have it at one of two venues: either at Grant Park, or at Stone Mountain Park, east of Atlanta.
You couldn't pick two more historically distinct settings, one a park named after a Union general and located in a state called the Land of Lincoln, the other park conceived as a monument to the Confederacy with the images of Lee, Jackson, and Davis--who fought to preserve slavery--carved into granite. In this admittedly absurd hypothetical, Obama tells his crew that since Grant Park is in Cook County, Illinois, and Stone Mountain Park is in DeKalb County, Georgia, he will make the call on which of the two places he will speak based on one factor: which county gives him the greatest percentage of its total vote.
Guess where the rally would occur? Here's a hint: sweet tea and pecan pie would probably be served.
Obama received 78.86% of the vote in DeKalb County (p. 8 of the link). It took me a bit longer to find the tally for Cook County; I ended up having to go to separate websites for the City of Chicago and the rest of the county. Add it together and Obama gathered 76.19% of the Cook County vote. (That's a slightly different figure than Dave Leip has--76.48%--but the point I'm making isn't imperiled).
So Obama got about two and a half percent more of the total vote here in DeKalb county, in a red state, than he got in his home county.
What's the significance of this? Well, since McCain's defeat, I've seen articles like this one and this one that essentially argue that the Republican Party has become a party of only the Deep South. They're missing the point, as I hope I'll convince you when I run some of the numbers. What I'm going to do here is make some comparisons between Georgia, which McCain carried, and Illinois, which Obama won. For the remainder of this essay, my source will be Dave Leip's atlas.
The five largest counties in Georgia are, not surprisingly, the five counties forming the core of metro Atlanta. Obama won three of these, taking Fulton and Clayton as well as DeKalb. McCain prevailed in Gwinett and Cobb. We've already seen how well Obama did in DeKalb; he did even better in Clayton with well over 80% of the vote; plus he got over two-thirds of the vote in Fulton. While McCain obviously got slaughtered in DeKalb and Clayton, in the two counties Obama lost, he still got over 44% of the vote. So, if you combined all five counties into one super-duper county, Obama would win it.
Okay, so what was the key to McCain winning Georgia's fifteen electoral votes, seeing as how it wasn't Atlanta? How about all those medium-sized cities in Georgia; he must have won there, right?
Sorry. The three largest counties in Georgia that aren't part of the Atlanta metro are Chatham, home of Savannah, known for its architecture and history; Richmond, home of Augusta, known for the Masters golf tournament; and Muscogee, home of Columbus, known as the world headquarters of the insurance company with the talking duck. Obama won them all.
In addition, Obama won Clarke County, home of Athens where the University of Georgia sits. He also won Bibb County, which is where you'll find Macon. (No, "Macon County Line" fans, Macon isn't in Macon County; although for what it's worth Obama won there too.) This is all similar to what happened in Illinois, where Obama was also the choice of the medium-sized metro areas, winning in Peoria County, Winnebago County (Rockford), Champaign County, and Sangamon County (Springfield).
So if Obama won Atlanta and the mid-sized Georgia cities, where did McCain get enough votes to overcome this? The Churchill quote at the start of this essay suggests the answer: McCain won a lot of Georgia counties without a lot of people. Of the 46 counties in this state that the last census shows having fewer than twelve thousand people, McCain won 32; that's 69.6% of the tiniest counties. (I confess I was surprised Obama carried as many of these Hootervilles as he did).
And you know what? McCain also won most of the smallest counties in Illinois. If we look at the 27 counties in Illinois with fewer than fifteen thousand people, McCain won in 19 of them. That's 70.4%, so McCain actually did slightly better in tiny counties in Illinois, which he lost, than in Georgia, which he won. (I used different standards for small counties in the two states--under 12 thousand in Georgia and under 15 thousand in Illinois--because Illinois has both fewer counties and fewer really small ones.)
In fact, if you look at the entire state of Illinois, you see that McCain won a clear majority of the 102 counties there, 57 to Obama's 45. To be fair, that's an impressive total of counties won by Obama; in 2004 Kerry won the state but only out polled Bush in fifteen counties. Nevertheless, the conclusion is clear: while it is apparent the majority of people in Illinois wanted Obama, it's equally apparent that in the majority of places in Illinois McCain was the choice.
So what Churchill said about England in 1259 is just as true in America today. One party is preferred in urban areas, another out in the country. It's true in Illinois; it's true in Georgia. It's why those polls that late in the campaign moved North Dakota from "solidly McCain" to just "leaning McCain" were so laughable: did anybody really think Obama might prevail there? (The fun stuff you learn from the census bureau web page: North Dakota actually has 29 counties with fewer than five thousand people!)
The problem the Republicans have isn't that it is a regional party, only holding a majority in the Deep South. Even there, McCain didn't do well in urban areas. By the same token, even in Obama's Illinois, he doesn't get much of the rural vote. No, the issue for the Republicans where elections are concerned is that they are too much of a country party. And it takes city votes to win.
There's one more point I should address. If in both Illinois and in Georgia, Obama easily won the state's only really big city, and in both states Obama won the Peorias and the Augustas, and in both states McCain won Mayberry, how come Obama won the Prairie State handily but lost in the Peach Tree State?
It wasn't the black vote. According to the Census Bureau, there are about 900 thousand more African-Americans in Georgia than in Illinois, a statistic which takes on even greater significance when you realize that Illinois has about three and a half million more people than Georgia. If anything, you'd expect black vote to have more impact in Georgia than in Illinois.
Actually, I would argue there are two reasons Obama succeeded in one state but not the other; a minor reason and a major reason.
The minor reason is that McCain did quite a bit better in Atlanta's suburbs than in Chicago's. I noted that McCain won several suburban Atlanta counties, including Cobb and Gwinett. By contrast, Obama carried all five of the Illinois counties that adjoin Cook County, four of them with 55% or better of the vote.
But I think there is a much bigger reason McCain couldn't compete, demographically speaking, in Illinois. Remember how I said if you took all five of the largest Georgia counties and combined them into one super county Obama would win it? Well if you lumped that quintet of biggest Georgia counties into one, you'd have a county with just under three and a half million people.
Cook County, Illinois, all by itself, has almost 5.3 million people. So adding Georgia's top five counties gets you only to about two-thirds of the Cook County population.
And that, in conclusion, leads me back to my thesis about urban voters versus rural voters. McCain won Georgia because Atlanta is still small enough that the state's rural vote can overwhelm it. That's not true in Illinois, where Chicagoland is so huge that all the Barney Fife votes in the state can't touch it.