The Importance of the Non-Major Metropolitan North: How Important is Cultural Liberalism?

In cities (counties with over 500,000 people) Kerry won 61% of the vote, better than any Democrat since 1964 except for Clinton 1996 and Gore 2000. His 40% of the rural vote was 3% better than Gore and was better than all Dems since 1976 except 1988 Dukakis and 1996 Clinton (both 44%). Given the fact that Kerry’s popular vote percent total (48.3%) was virtually identical to Gore’s, and his rural vote was only slightly higher while his urban vote was lower, its stands to reason that Kerry, like Gore before him, carried the nonsouthern suburban counties by 15%!!!. In 2000, Bush won the southern suburbs by 20% points in 2000 and probably repeated this feat given that he won all 12 southern states by over 5% (except Florida).

In The Almanac of American Politics 2002, the US is broken down into 4 parts: Top 7 major metro areas (this is the most Democratic), The next 16 major metro areas (Democratic, but not by as great a margin), the non-major metro north (outside the northern cities and suburbs) and the non-major metro south ( outside the southern cities and suburbs, this is the most GOP).

The Top 7 major metro are NY, LA, Chicago, SF, Philadelphia, Detroit, and DC. The next 16 include places like Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, St. Louis, and Phoenix.

At 31% which region was the most populous in 2000 voting: The Non-Major Metro North (NMMN).

The results for the NMMN are not yet available for 2004. In 2000, Bush won this area 52.8%-42.8%. In contrast, Bush Sr. beat Dukakis here 54.7%-44.5% in 1988.

I know one of the principal authors of the Almanac is former-liberal-now-conservative columnist Michael Barone and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. However, his description of the NMMN seems pretty accurate (feel free to disagree).

Barone writes: “This is the most populous of these areas and one generally ignored in political coverage. Here voters are more anti-corruption, traditon-minded, and religious than the national average. They reacted negatively to Bill Clinton’s personal immorality and to his cultural liberalism on issues like abortion, gun control, and gay rights. Clinton-Gore positions on the environment were unpopular in many places of the West, Farm Belt, and eastern coal country. In places where the Democratic Party had traditionally been strong for historical reasons-because of Civil War loyalties, the union organizing drives of the 1930s, agrarian radicalism-there were major GOP gains. Lumberjack Democrats, mine-worker Democrats, country music Democrats-all surged toward Bush.”

Some of this is inaccurate. While the opposition to mountaintop mining hurt Gore in West Va., it didn’t hurt nearly as much as gun control. There are a number of environmental Democratic positions on developing alternative energy sources, breaking up the farm trusts, raising efficiency standards, holding polluting companies responsible for their actions, and ethanol research that plays well in rural areas. Indeed, Kerry had a number of multi-point plans for rural economic development.

Finally, while Dems have lost some edge here, the GOP has long had an overwhelming advantage in the Mountain West (e.g. Idaho, Utah, Wyoming) rural MidWest (the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, Indiana) and even parts of the rural North-East (e.g. Central Pennsylvania, Eastern Maryland).

Bottom line: The Dems have the cities nationwide and are doing a heckuva lot better in the nonsouthern suburbs (although we can still grow there). Aside from the Southern suburbs, you don’t get much more GOP than the non-major metro South. Also, the places in the NMMN where the GOP has a big advantage are small states that are losing EVs and Congressmen (e.g. Wyoming, the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska).

Given the huge GOP advatages in these parts of the NMMN, its hard to see a Dem winning the total popular vote in the NMMN, but it’s not an impossibility for Dems to improve. Yes politics is about winning vs. losing: but a BIG corollary to that is that politics is also about winning vs. winning big in places where you have a big advantage and losing vs. getting your head handed to you in places where you are at a big disadvantage.

For example: A Democrat will almost surely win the total popular vote in metropolitian Kansas City and St. Louis. Similarly, a Republican candidate will win the total popular vote in non-major metro counties of Missouri. But given the long history of populism in rural Missouri (think Harry Truman, Mel Carnahan, etc.) it’s stupid to think Dems are doomed to get their heads handed to them in rural Missouri. Sure Dems can always grow in the Missouri suburbs, but the Missouri suburbs ain’t as Republican as it used to be, but rural Missouri is more GOP than ever before.

So how to increase Dem vote totals in the Non-Major Metro North? A lot of these places are economically populist, and while they are certainly patriotic, pro-military folk (as are many liberals), they don’t just accept whatever Bush tells them about Iraq blindly (see the most recently Survey USA polls). Someone who has no inhibitions about using military force but for whom military force is the last, NOT FIRST, option, could play well here. Similarly, an economic liberal who doesn’t fear deficits but also understands we can’t run deficits as far as the eye can see, a la Reagan and the Bushes, could also do well in a number of NMMN counties.

Unfortunately, lots of the NMMN is culturally conservative. That doesn’t mean that these folks are a bunch of mini-Jerry Falwells, not by a long shot. Still, there has been a recent tendency for culture to trump economics in populist rural northern areas. What’s more, where before these voters only voted for economically moderate Repubs (e.g. Nixon, Ike, Ford) now their cultural conservatism trumps even the right-wing economic conservatism of Reagan and Bush Jr.

Why is this so? Personally, I’m no fan of abortion and I find much of what Hollywood passes for art to be gross, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Holywood violates laws and actively markets their rated-R products to chldren under teen years. While I didn’t support DOMA and do support civil unions for gays, I’ve got my doubts about gay marriage. Still, my economic liberalism has led me to vote Democrat up and down the ticket. I don’t have children, but for all you folks who worry about latchkey kids watching violent TV, wouldn’t it be good if working class jobs were secure enough and paid enough so the average worker wouldn’t have to work an average 50 hours a week just to stay in place? If you value families, doesn’t it make sense to help families spend more time together?

While I’m more than happy to let the GOP have the Pat Robertsons and Trent Lott’s of the country (talk about stupid is as stupid does), one fact remains: for the majority of Americans who are culturally to the right of Hollywood, when faced with the choice of being too culturally libertine or to culturally conservative, at election timesthese voters will usually tend to err on the side of the latter. So the questions are:
1. What can Dems do to increase their vote in the NMMN?
2. Why have Non-Major Metro Northern voters allowed cultural concerns to trump economic concerns even though the GOP has gone way to the right on economics since 1980?
3. Should Dems be more open to those who are not culturally liberal, (e.g. nominate a pro-life candidate in state-wide elections or for Pres. or at least VP?)
4. Given Kerry’s more conservative views on some of these social issues (e.g. gay marriage) why did voters who were not religious right but still concerned about “moral values” vote for a frat-boy liar (even if he was was politically conservative on cultural issues)? When I voted I thought my vote was inspired by a strong moral code and a belief in moral leadership. I wasn’t the only one who believed this and also voted for Kerry was I?

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About Nick

Teacher of Social Studies. Born in the 1970s. History major, music minor. Big Baseball fan. Economic progressive.
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3 Responses to The Importance of the Non-Major Metropolitan North: How Important is Cultural Liberalism?

  1. Marjorie G says:

    I love how you punch numbers. Thanks you so much for what you contribute here, bringing sanity and analysis to how we look at the last election and go forward. Seeing opportunity instead of circular blame.

    Muchas gracias.

  2. Marjorie

    Nick is a bright light, always showing us the way!

  3. Nick says:

    Thanks Marjorie and Pamela.