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Vote swings in rich and poor counties

I got ahold of the county-level election returns from 2008 (as of a few days ago, so lots of precincts missing, but that’s what I have to go with for now) and crosstabbed it with county income, dividing the counties into poorest, middle, and upper third, with cutpoints set so that approximately one-third of the U.S. population is in each category.

What happened in each lower, middle-income, and rich America?


Obama did better than Kerry in all three graphs, but he did most uniformly better in the rich counties. (In this and subsequent graphs, the area of the circle is proportional to the number of voters in that county in 2004. It turns out that Obama did the worst, compared to Kerry, in low-population poor counties, so the graphs actually look a bit different if you plot all counties with equal-sized circles.)

These patterns are new to 2008. Checking the corresponding plots from 2000/2004 and 1996/2000, we don’t see much of anything different comparing poor, middle-income, and rich counties.

The next step is to break things up by region of the country. Here’s what we see:


In the midwest and west, Obama outperformed Kerry in all sorts of counties. In the northeast, Obama did just a bit better than Kerry (who had that northeastern home-state advantage). In the south, Obama did almost uniformly better in rich counties, also did well in middle-income counties (although less so in Republican-leaning areas), and basically showed no improvement from Kerry in poor counties.

So, region and income are both part of the story here. As we already know from those maps of vote swing by county. These scatterplots are another way to look at it.

What happened in the two previous elections?

Let’s take a look at the swings from 2000 to 2004:swings2004.png

Nothing much here. But what about the 1996/2000 swing?


This is interesting. Gore held performed about as well as Clinton in most of the middle-income and rich counties but he got nuked in poor counties in all regions of the country. Consistent with the David Brooks story about growing divisions between Red and Blue America.

P.S. Thanks for Cosma Shalizi, Yair Ghitza, and Boris Shor for grabbing and putting together the data.

P.P.S. Recall that the 2008 data are incomplete. Out of 3114 rows in the data, 23 rows have < 50%, 49 rows have 50-75%, 68 rows have 75-90%, 117 have 90-99%, and 2857 have 100% reporting. So at some point we'll need to redo these graphs. P.P.P.S. Yes, I know that income isn't all. Feel free to take these data and run whatever regressions you want, including %black and anything else you're interested in. That said, I think the above plots are interesting--especially considering that the patterns in 1996/2000 and 2000/2004 were different.


  1. Just eyeballing the 2004/2008 poor counties in the south graph, it looks like the counties aren't really uniform. There seems to be one class of counties that behaves just like the middle and rich counties in the south, and another class of counties in which Obama does substantially worse than Kerry, which is concentrated towards the lower-left of the graph. I conjecture that you might be able to discern this clearly if you divide the south into "highlands" (Ozarks and Appalachians) and "lowlands" (other counties). There also seem to be a few counties in the Northeast and Midwest that fall this way, and I wouldn't be surprised if these turn out to be the Appalachian counties of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

  2. Brad Carlin says:

    Andrew: Have you and your readers seen this page:

    My friend Melanie Wall alerted me to it. Click on "Voting shifts" and you get results very much in the same spirit as your work on this post. Red means more Republican than 2004, while blue means more Democratic. note that AZ and MA are both reddish, which makes perfect sense (McCain this time, no Kerry this time). The Louisiana gulf coast is reddish, perhaps because Katrina removed a lot of blue voters from this area.

    Now the tricky part…

    The only other really red areas on the map are Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and up into Appalachia. Should we conclude these are the areas where people are uncomfortable voting for a black man?

    I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this…

    One other interesting aspect is how sharp many of the state boundaries are. For example, you can really see how much effort Obama put into Montana vis-a-vis Idaho.

    There are many other interesting aspects here as well; note e.g. there is a slider so you can compare 2008 to other presidential elections as far back as Bill Clinton's first victory. But Melanie warns me against overinterpreting those comparisons overmuch, since Ross Perot mounted a formidable challenge in both of BC's elections.

  3. Andrew says:

    Hi, Swing-State Brad. Things have sure changed in Minnesota since 1984, huh? Anyway, yes, I think the NYT maps are excellent. For more of my stats on the elections and comparison to 2004 etc., see the Red State, Blue State blog.

  4. Brad Carlin says:

    Us Minnesota Democrats don't like to admit we live in a swing state, and I don't think we've supported a Republican for president since the Trickster in '72. But it's true that we've also given the nation Tim Pawlenty, Michelle Bachman, and Jesse "The Mind" Ventura…

    I knocked on doors for Obama one weekend and here is the data:

    door knocked: 25
    doors opened: 19
    doors for McCain: 0
    doors for Obama or Undecided: 19

    doors violently opposed to Al Franken: 4

    From this, I made the following seat-of-the-pants inference: Unless Obama wins the state by double digits, Franken is cooked. Sure enough, Obama won by exactly 10, and the Senate race has ended in a virtual tie. The current count is Coleman by 200 out of 2.9 million cast.

    I think instead of doing a recount, we should simply ask the 15% who voted for Barkley (the independent candidate who was Ventura's chief of staff and actually served out the end of Paul Wellstone's term) who their second choice is, and let this decide the matter.

    Brad the Democrat

  5. Lynn Hochsprung says:

    I find the above comment by Brad Carlin quite interesting and perhaps revealing?

    "The only other really red areas on the map are Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and up into Appalachia. Should we conclude these are the areas where people are uncomfortable voting for a black man?"

    So as an obviously "dyed in the wool" Democrat, you cannot understand any OTHER reason than race, to NOT vote for candidate Obama? Doesn't that make YOU the racist, since you conclude that voting behavior in 2008 had to be a decision based ONLY on the color of the candidate's skin?

    Now that President Obama has been in office for 1.4 years, and the country is bankrupt, due to the single largest entitlement legislation in U. S. history, ever, and overspending on the part of the congress, AND the government is in control of the auto industry, the banking industry, and making plans to take over the oil industry as I type this, you cannot think of one other reason why anyone might vote for a different candidate than Obama, other than his skin color?

    And you think conservatives are clueless? P.S. Thanks for confirmation that Minnesota truly is a non-blue state (CNN would definitely not agree with you); Can you NOT see solid reasons in the above paragraph why Minnesota should not swing to RED again, ASAP? Would the state of California's debt ($44 billion and counting) not encourage you to think again?

    P.S. I fully recognize the grammatical intention of Brad's questiom mark at the end of Brad's comment. Just like the question marks in my observations.