Politics in Practice

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Regional Dynamics in US Elections

Luke Perry is Professor and Chair of the Department of Government and Politics and the Director of the Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research. He is also the editor of the Palgrave Studies in US Elections book series, which welcomes short-form monographs on American Elections. 

Interested in learning more about the Palgrave Studies in US Elections book series? Read a chapter from a recent book "From the Iowa Caucuses to the White House" for free until 13th August 2020. Building a Winning Coalition: Understanding County-Level Support for Donald Trump in the 2016 Election by Andrew D. Green.

Scholarship on the 2016 presidential election primarily focused on the nature of Donald Trump’s victory and the implications for the new administration. “No one gave Trump much of a chance, yet he won the election," wrote William Crotty. "How did he do it? What explains his political success?” 

This question has since been taken up by many scholars. Amon Cavari, Richard Powell, and Kenneth Mayer “identified key factors behind the election of Donald J. Trump, explored the unconventional campaign, analyzed the unexpected election result, evaluated the forecasting models, and speculated on the effect of the election outcome on politics and governance in the Trump Administration.” Several books focused on campaign strategies in explaining Trump’s road to the White House and evaluated forecasting models, national voting behavior, and the impact of societal forces, such as the news media and mass communication. Benjamin Warner, Dianne Bystrom, Mitchell McKinney and Mary Banwart described Trump as “one of the most unconventional and most-unlikely-to-succeed candidates in U.S. history,” whose victory, “unexpected by all experts and statistical models,” resulted from the underlying dynamics involving traditional and social media, the evolving nature of TV advertising, and the implications of three presidential debates.” Rachel Bitecofer emphasized the shortcomings of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which “conducted the nearly perfect execution of the wrong electoral strategy, costing her the Electoral College and her chance to become America’s first female president.”  

Limited attention, however, has been devoted to regional dynamics and campaign issues. Some books included a single chapter on issues. Others focused on swing states, but emphasized what makes states “swing” more than their regional or sub-cultural dynamics. This lack of focus on regional factors, I would argue, neglects a core aspect of American politics and elections.

This is why I started the Palgrave Studies in U.S. Elections book series, which brings together cutting-edge work on American elections with a particular focus on how state/local electoral trends influence national electoral politics, and vice versa. This mission is particularly well-illustrated in two forthcoming edited volumes. The 2020 Democratic Primary: Key Developments, Dynamics, and Lessons for 2024 will examine a unique combination of factors that shaped Democrats efforts to nominate a candidate who could defeat Donald Trump. Contributors analyze new developments, such as the implosion of the Iowa Caucus and the rise of the virtual convention, and key dynamics, including who benefited from primary rules, ideological divisions, and the impact of race and gender. The 2020 Presidential Election: Key Issues and Regional Dynamics will adopt a regional approach to understanding 2020 presidential election outcomes. Contributors analyze electoral outcomes in the Midwest, Southwest, Southeast, and Northeast, enriching contextual understandings of the national results and illuminating nuances in public opinion, voter behavior, and party politics.

There are several reasons why political science scholarship would benefit from an increased focus on regional analysis and campaign issues. Division is a defining feature of U.S. politics. Hyper-partisanship manifests itself geographically. The number of landslide counties, where a Republican or Democratic presidential candidate wins by twenty points or more, has steadily increased since 1992. Urban and rural communities are increasingly polarized.

Americans have also become more tribal. People increasingly group themselves around values at large, including worldviews, defining life moments, and brands that appeal to them. These tribes can cut across age, race, and even partisan identification.

Hyper-partisanship and tribalism inform and complicate presidential elections by generating “increasingly incompatible sets of facts and first premises.” This raises the stakes, as elections become existentially crucial moments in U.S. history, and enables extremism to become more justifiable, diminishing norms and general appeals to fairness.

As we approach the 2020 year, it is more important than ever to understand and explore these issues to better understand where we are, and what this might mean for 2024.

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