FREEPORT — Late Tuesday night, the television screens carried a familiar image: America, its northeastern quadrant and western shore a sea of blue, much of the rest a mass of red.
It’s essentially the same map — give or take two or three states — that greeted viewers on this week in 2000, 2004 and 2008, one reflecting divisions dating back centuries. The Democratic presidential nominee — whether an African-American from Hawaii and Chicago or a white Southern Baptist from Tennessee — dominated much of the old Union, the Republican nominee most of the states of the old Confederacy, often by wide margins.
While these state-level maps suggest our political differences may have a regional basis, they actually conceal the depth of the sectional divide, because they fail to capture the true cultural fault lines that have shaped and defined American politics since long before the United States came into existence.
The United States is composed of the whole or parts of 11 disparate regional cultures, most dating back three and four centuries, and all of them exhibiting conflicting agendas and the characteristics of nationhood. They’ve shaped our history, marking the battle lines of England’s Glorious Revolution of 1689, the American Revolution, War of 1812, and, most catastrophically, the U.S. Civil War. You don’t see them reflected on state-level maps because these regional cultures don’t respect state boundaries — or even international ones — and bleed over the Canadian and Mexican frontiers as readily as they divide California, Texas, Ohio or Pennsylvania.
Look at county-level maps of almost any closely contested presidential race in our history, and the presence of these regional cultures is far clearer. Again and again, the swaths of the country colonized by the early Puritans and their descendants tend to vote as one, and against the party in favor in the sections first colonized by the Barbados slave lords who founded Charleston, or the Scots-Irish frontiersmen who swept down the Appalachian highlands and on into the Hill Country of Texas, Oklahoma, and the southern tiers of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri.
The people of the slender Pacific coastal plain from San Francisco to Juneau, Alaska — a region you might call the Left Coast — have backed the same horse as the Yankees in virtually every contest since their states joined the Union, and in opposition to the candidate favored by the majority of people in the interiors of their own states. Yankees also have found allies in the sections of the Southwest that were effectively colonized by Spain in the 16th to 19th centuries.
Most of the other regional cultures have found themselves somewhere in between the two, some of them finding common cause with one coalition for several decades before defecting to the other. In the early 20th century, the interior West was once a reliable ally of Yankeedom, but by century’s end its leaders were allied with those in the Deep South.
The Dutch-settled area around New York City follwed the opposite pattern; today the region is as reliably blue as Massachussetts. The Quaker-founded Midlands — always a multiethnic, multicultural mosaic — have for centuries been skeptical of both coalition’s agendas, and often has served as the kingmaker in federal elections.
This year’s presidential contest was no exception, but it did confirm the shifting of relative power — and one longstanding alliance — that probably will create new challenges to Republicans on the national stage.
The regional fault lines could be seen throughout this year’s Republican primary contest, which pitted Yankee-born-and-bred Mitt Romney against an Appalachian native son (Rick Santorum) and a man whose entire adult life has been spent in the Deep South (Newt Gingrich).
It should have come as no surprise that Romney swept Yankee-settled areas, including Wisconsin, Michigan, the Western Reserve of Ohio, northern Illinois and every county in Massachusetts and Vermont. Nor that Santorum beat his rivals by staggering margins in the Appalachian sections of Alabama and Mississippi, the southern third of Illinois, and eastern Tennessee. Nor that Gingrich was able to win only one of the more than 2,000 counties in Yankeedom, the Midlands, the Left Coast and Far West (Bent County, Colorado, population 6,250).
The lines could be seen on the Democratic side too, where Barack Obama (who spent his entire adult life in Yankeedom) faced surprisingly stiff primary challenges from no-name candidates across Greater Appalachia. In West Virginia, 41 percent of Democrats cast their ballots for a Texas prison inmate, while 42 percent of Kentucky Democrats preferred “uncommitted.” He won Arkansas, but lost many of its Appalachian counties by 30 to 50 percentage points to an attorney from the Appalachian part of Tennessee.
The general election was unusual in that both candidates had similar regional strengths and weaknesses. This could have given Obama a structural advantage in that Romney’s strongest support in the primaries came from “blue” areas that were unlikely to vote Republican, and the Appalachian support critical to his winning swing states such as Ohio and Virginia might be depressed. But it turns out there was an “enthusiasm gap” across the board. In Ohio, for instance, turnout was depressed in both Appalachian counties (almost all of which went for Romney) and in the Yankee Western Reserve (to which Obama owes his statewide victory).
Thus, in the lower Great Lakes states, the race was won the way so many presidential races are: by one candidate appealing to a narrow majority of voters in the fickle, Quaker-founded Midlands. Romney’s rejection of the auto industry bailout — he wrote a November 2008 New York Times editorial column titled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” — was probably his undoing in Ohio.
The election also confirmed a historic development a decade in the making: the undoing of the “Solid South” that Republican presidential candidates had come to count on. While the Deep South and Greater Appalachia remain solidly in their camp, the Tidewater country has become a reliable member of the “blue” coalition.
For students of history and political consultants alike this is an epic development. The Tidewater — which encompasses the Chesapeake low country, the lower two counties of Delaware, and much of eastern North Carolina — was the most powerful regional culture in the 17th and 18th centuries. Built by the younger sons of southern English gentry, it was meant to reproduce the semifeudal manorial society of the countryside they’d left behind, where economic, political and social affairs were run by and for landed aristocrats.
It has long been fundamentally conservative, a culture in which a great value is placed on respect for authority and tradition, and very little on equality or public participation in politics.
However, for the past two centuries it has been in slow decline, blocked from westward expansion by its boisterous Appalachian neighbors and, more recently, eaten away from within by the ever-expanding federal halos around the District of Columbia and the federal military bases at Norfolk, Va. Literally millions of people across the region have moved here and live their cultural and economic lives without reference to the cultural and economic landscape of Tidewater. In electoral terms, the region has crossed the tipping point.
For two elections running, Tidewater counties from southern Delaware to east-central North Carolina have voted decisively for Obama. In 2008, his margin of victory in Tidewater was so great he was able to capture the Electoral College votes of both North Carolina and Virginia, despite overwhelming opposition across those states’ Appalachian sections.
This year the pattern was repeated. He narrowly lost North Carolina (which has a larger Appalachian section) and won Virginia by three points.
Nor was the pattern confined to the presidential race. In Virginia’s U.S. Senate race, Democrat Tom Kaine owes his victory to strong support in the Tidewater, which allowed him to overcome Republican George Allen’s 2- and 3-to-1 margins in most of the state’s Appalachian counties.
The defection of Tidewater, combined with the growing electoral power of Spanish-speaking El Norte — parts of the four states immediately north of the Mexican border — probably will continue to give Democrats a critical edge in presidential and U.S. Senate contests in the coming years. Both parties ignore the implications of this underlying regional geography at their peril.