Politics are driven by urbanization as much as race


One exaggerated explanation for the 2012 presidential election was “Only white people voted for Mitt Romney….Or not quite only.” That’s because 88% of Romney voters were white versus 56% for Obama. And given the ongoing relative demographic decline in whites, there’s a narrative predicting a parallel decline in Republican electability. But this narrative is a partial truth. To get the larger picture you have to slice the election map above by urban density, not just race.

First let’s look at the claim that the relative demographic decline of whites will have a significant impact in the 2016 election, as compared to 2012. What does the data say? Quote:

The Census Bureau’s projections tell us that America’s minorities will continue to increase as a proportion of the population, with whites becoming a minority of all Americans in the early 2040s. And yet, when these numbers are plugged into the standard arithmetic for predicting voting outcomes, the expected increase in the Democratic vote in 2016 is not five, six, or seven percentage points. Nor even one or two percentage points. The demographic changes I just described may be expected to produce an increase in the Democratic presidential vote of just three-tenths of one percentage point.

How is that possible? Because I neglected to mention one other set of numbers that goes into that arithmetic, also produced by the Census Bureau in periodic special surveys for the November Current Population survey: Voter turnout.

That is to say, after taking into account who actually votes, demographic shifts will only change the 2016 election result by 0.3%. So yes demographics are huge, but the wheel turns slowly. And since the last election was close compared to other elections in the past 100 years, the quirks of the candidates in 2016 will have a larger impact on who wins than demographic shifts. Put another way, don’t be surprised if the 2016 debates turn out to be identical to Obama/Romney, with merely the faces changed.

Second, let’s take off our race glasses to put on our population density glasses. The chart below is taken from the excellent article The Real Republican Adversary? Population Density. Left is less dense, right is more dense. We get to a blue Obama majority once we reach an urban density greater than 800 people per square mile.


From the same post:

Atlanta, New Orleans, St. Louis, Dallas, and Indianapolis are all in red states — and they all voted blue. And there are no true “cities” in red states that voted red. The only cities in red states that didn’t vote blue were Salt Lake City and Oklahoma City. And by global standards, they are not really cities — each has population density (about 1,000/sq. mi.) less than suburban Maryland (about 1,500/sq. mi.).

The causal problem we have is it’s hard to tell if cities vote Democrat blue because they are more diverse or because they are more dense. Obviously both are true. I think the right answer comes from recognizing that cities have been ethnically diverse for thousands of years, from ancient Rome to modern Singapore. Diversity of cities pre-dates not just modern political parties, but democracy itself. And the trend toward urbanization is thousands of years old. It strikes me as the primary historical mover in this context, with diversity being a secondary consequence.

Let’s compare race and density changes using census data. The first chart below is by race. Note that the census bureau defines Hispanic as an ethnic group, not a race. This means the chart below understates the voting impact of demographic changes. From the same source, we find Hispanics are roughly 12% of the population, doubling from 6% in 1980. Which just makes the conclusion more obvious – non-Hispanic whites are in long term relative decline.


Now compare the race chart above to the density chart below. We see metropolitan areas go from 28% of the population in 1900 to 80% in 2000. That’s a big deal. Arguably as or more important than the changes in racial demographics above. It’s reasonable to assume people in metropolitan areas will want different things from government than people in rural areas. And culturally we’re not surprised to learn that people in rural areas hold self sufficiency in higher regard than people living closer together.


With this context we can see the Democrat critique of Republicans not appealing to non-whites is morally on target but incomplete in two ways:

  1. Racial demographics will not shift enough by 2016 to make much difference.
  2. The Republican problem is a race problem, but perhaps can be more fundamentally thought of as a city problem.

So shifting to say 2024, when demography really will have an impact, what should Republicans do (beyond race) to appeal to city dwellers? First, look to Republican city mayors for ideas, not to red state Republican governors. People with backgrounds like NYC mayor Bloomberg. Second, focus more on housing and education, and other issues city residents care most about. And solve those city problems by pulling from the better aspects of conservatism. For example I’m a big fan of removing onerous zoning restrictions to build cities taller and denser. Build baby build! Clearly free market Republicans could champion this idea. Yet one of the best writers on this topic is a progressive, Matthew Yglesias. See Yglesias’ post on housing scarcity being perversely bad for homeowners or his take on why San Francisco should build more densely. His $3 ebook is also good: The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think.

In the end it’s not clear how everything will play out. But broadening the critique of Republicans beyond race, to also include a focus on the rural-city trend is critical. It allows us to more clearly see and plan our future.

2 thoughts on “Politics are driven by urbanization as much as race

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