Density Increasingly Decides State Elections, Too

Tuesday’s election results show how America is continuing to polarize along an urban-rural continuum. But it’s not playing out the same everywhere.

Voters on Tuesday gave Democrats a resounding victory in races for Virginia’s general assembly, a narrow victory in Kentucky’s gubernatorial election, and a defeat in Mississippi’s gubernatorial race. All three states show signs of ongoing polarization, in which rural areas are becoming more Republican and suburban areas are becoming more Democratic.

In Virginia, for example, the same suburban surge that powered Democrats to victory in 2018’s congressional races was also evident a year later at the state level. Based on a density index devised by CityLab to analyze elections, Democrats on Tuesday won an average of 73 percent of the vote in districts that CityLab categorizes as “dense suburban,” and 53 percent in “sparse suburban” districts.1 But eight years ago, Democrats averaged just 46 percent of the vote in “dense suburban” districts, and were blown out with an average of 22 percent of the vote in “sparse suburban” districts.

Likewise,  rural districts saw a hard turn toward Republicans. In 2011, Democrats averaged 32 percent of the vote in predominantly rural districts—roughly in line with their overall 34 percent of the vote. In 2019, Democrats did much better overall, winning nearly 53 percent of the total vote. But their share in rural districts fell to 27 percent.

Virginia is a fast-growing state with large shares of its population living in dense urban and especially suburban neighborhoods, and is overall much less rural than either Kentucky or Mississippi.

That means that Kentucky’s Democratic governor-elect Andy Beshear had to assemble a very different coalition to win there than Virginia’s Democrats did. Like them, he ran up big margins in the state’s cities and suburbs, and lost big in rural areas (though he lost by less in the country).

But whereas Virginia Democrats tended to do worse in districts where more people live in low-density communities like exurbs or rural towns, those areas were a strength for Beshear in his race against incumbent Republican Governor Matt Bevin. They had to be in order for him to win—Kentucky doesn’t have enough people living in dense communities for a candidate to lose in both rural and exurban areas and still pull off a victory, whereas Virginia does.

Despite these differences, though, Kentucky showed the same patterns as Virginia. Compared to Bevin’s victory over Democrat Jack Conway four years ago, Beshear did worse in counties with lots of rural residents, but better in counties with more people living in towns, suburbs, and cities.2 The differences are even more dramatic when compared to 2011, when Beshear’s father Steve was re-elected governor. Steve Beshear had only a minor disadvantage in Kentucky’s rural areas then, and smaller advantages than his son would produce in its denser communities.

In Mississippi, where Attorney General Jim Hood came up well short in his race against Republican Tate Reeves, demographics posed an even graver problem. Mississippi is one of the most rural and least suburban states in the country, and is the only state without a single neighborhood that CityLab classifies as “high density.”3 In every respect it’s less urban than Kentucky, where Beshear only squeaked out a victory on Tuesday by virtue of his opponent’s extremely low approval ratings.

Any election that follows this decade’s patterns of polarization, with Republican rural areas and Democratic suburbs and cities, is going to go poorly for a Democrat in Mississippi because it just doesn’t have enough suburbs and cities. And so Hood fell with 46.6 percent of the vote to Hood’s 52.1 percent.

There’s no guarantee that this trend will continue to accelerate in 2020 or other future elections. Just a decade ago, Democrats did well in rural, suburban, and urban congressional districts. But if Americans continue to polarize by density, then Democratic wins in rural places like Kentucky may get even rarer—as will Republican wins in suburban places like Virginia.

  1. Using a similar methodology to last year’s CityLab Congressional Density Index, we used a machine learning algorithm to classify districts based on the different types of high-, low-, and medium-density neighborhoods that make them up. A district that’s predominantly medium-density neighborhoods, for example, would be “dense suburban,” while “sparse suburban” districts tend to be mostly low-density neighborhoods with a substantial minority of medium-density.
  2. Bevin underperformed other Republicans on the ticket, who won the rest of Kentucky’s statewide offices. But even those down-ballot races showed similar patterns, just slightly less extreme. Attorney General-elect Daniel Cameron, a Republican, did better in counties with lots of rural residents and worse in counties where lots of people live in denser areas than Republican attorney general candidates in 2015 and 2011. He outperformed Bevin in suburban counties but did a little worse than him in rural counties.
  3. CityLab classifies neighborhoods with fewer than 102 households per square mile as “Very low density.” Neighborhoods with 102 to 800 households per square mile are “Low density,” while those with 800 to 2,213 households per square mile are “Medium density.” Anything above 2,213 households per square mile is “High density.” These numbers are derived from survey research conducted by Jed Kolko.

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