Democrats Standing on an Ever-Shrinking Map
Hillary won half the counties of Obama in 2008 and just a third of localities won by Bill in 1996
President-Elect Donald Trump’s upset victory in last month’s presidential election was not just a loss for Democrat Hillary Clinton — it also was a continuation of her party’s dramatically shrinking geographic footprint.
Even as he lost the popular vote by 2.5 million votes, Trump carried 2,625 counties, compared with just 487 for Clinton. President Obama in 2008 won nearly twice as many counties, 875, according to data compiled by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. And that total was far off the pace of Bill Clinton. He won 1,527 counties during the 1996 election, nearly equaling Republican Sen. Bob Dole’s total.
“It’s clearly a challenge for them … Democrats are inefficiently spread out.”
Vice President-Elect Mike Pence crowed about Trump’s performance during an appearance on “Meet the Press” Sunday, calling it “a historic election where he won 30 out of 50 states [and] more counties than any candidate on our side since Ronald Reagan.”
Some Democrats chafe at the focus on maps, which they argue is misleading because the maps fail to convey the huge population disparity between the urban centers that Clinton won and the small towns and thinly populated areas that Trump won. Some demographers even have produced alternative maps with distorted county sizes to capture this visually.
But political experts argue that the trend poses a long-term risk for Democrats. No only does it make it harder to amass at least 270 electoral votes needed to win presidential contests, it also makes it more difficult to win a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, said Democratic House districts in densely populated areas tend to be overwhelmingly Democratic, with many extra “wasted” votes.
Republicans have more "marginal" districts, where Republicans win by small margins, Skelley said.
"The Democratic Party used to win many rural areas. Now the rural areas that they do win either have large numbers of non-white voters, such as black voters in the South and Hispanics in the West, or are college towns that are still largely rural," he said. "It's clearly a challenge for them … Democrats are inefficiently spread out."
Visually, the change is stunning. The map below is a screen shot from The New York Times showing the 1996 election. Clinton's victory included large swaths of blue in in the South and even a bit in the traditionally Republican Plains states.
Compare that to Obama's win in 2008. The overall margin in the popular vote was similar to Clinton's win, but the map has a lot less blue, as Obama ran up the score in large cities and the Northern suburbs, while losing ground in the South and rural areas of other states.
The Times map from last month's election tells a similar, if more dramatic story. Clinton did not win a single county in West Virginia, a state that had reliably been in the Democratic column until George W. Bush won it in 2000.
Chris Arterton, a professor of political management at George Washington University, said a period of introspection and "soul searching" is typical after a party loses an election, particularly when it is as "traumatizing" as this year's election was for Democrats.
"And it's already begun," he said. "Democrats have some substantial work to do to recapture constituencies that they have lost."
Arterton said it is too soon to know if last month was an anomaly or if Trump's reorientation of the GOP into a populist party could "possibly create a permanent majority."
Skelley said political developments rarely are permanent. He pointed out that just before the election, it was Republicans fretting about whether they would be locked out of the White House for a lengthy period of time because of demographic shifts. He said if Trump has a bad first two years, Democrats are likely to come roaring back in the 2018 midterm elections.
At the same time, Skelley said, Democrats have a real challenge relating with voters outside of major metropolitan areas. The party has become much more of an urban-centric force, with its focus on diversity.
"I think a lot of it is cultural," he said.
Skelley said the Democrats could get lucky and benefit if Republicans now in total control of government stumble. But he said it would behoove Democrats to reach out to exurban and rural voters. He rejects the notion that socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders would have won the election. He pointed to exit polls suggesting that voters wanted a more conservative direction.
"The Democrats might take the wrong lesson from this election and run Left," he said.
Arterton said it could be a mistake, however, to exaggerate the impact of the election. He said it appears that while some Obama voters shifted to Trump, it is likely that many Democratic voters simply did not show up because they were not enamored with Clinton. A different candidate and different circumstances could alter the 2016 dynamics.
"In some of these counties that turned red, there might still be a lot of blue voters," he said.