Saturday, November 23, 2013

Virginia governor's race: debunking the "urban vs rural" explanation

Earlier this month at Washington Monthly, I wrote about the strong regional divide in the Virginia governor's race, suggesting the distinct political preferences of Tidewater and Greater Appalachia best explained the results of yet another Tea Party vs Not election.

A number of commenters suggested this was nonsense, repeating the conventional wisdom that the race pit urban and rural Virginia against one another, with Democratic money man Terry McAuliffe capturing the former. They're wrong.

This week, also at Washington Monthly, I presented the data, which refutes the received wisdom:

In Greater Appalachia, Cuccinelli won every category of county, from the very largest cities in the section (where he won 49.1 to 45.7) to counties without so much as a big town (62.8 to 30.8). In every category save the largest (category 2 in Greater Appalachia), he won by more than 20 points.
 By contrast, in Tidewater, McAuliffe won by large margins in counties large and small, taking five of the six categories. In the biggest cities he won 56.3 to 37.3. In the most rural counties he won by a convincing 51.0 to 41.1.
Virginia being home to half the Beltway crowd in Washington, the piece has gotten considerable attention. Mother Jones' Kevin Drum suggested the analysis offered nothing new, suggesting regionalism's importance has always been understood in Virginia's politics. Ryan Cooper at the Monthly's flagship Political Animal blog said the data had shaken his "understanding of the underlying realities of politics." 

The Wall Street Journal's MoneyWatch columnist Darrell Delamaide gave the most detailed treatment, describing some of my past work and saying:
"If Tidewater, the region where most of our Founding Fathers came from, has remained true to its sense of “noblesse oblige” and drifted away from the Republican Party as it has become more stridently intolerant, other regions may also be ready for change."
Meanwhile, my original post on Virginia was picked up by one of that state's important dailies, the Fredericksburg-based Free Lance-Star, and (with permission) run as an OpEd.

Comments on the new data focus on two criticisms.

One is that race is an important factor. I agree, but note that the profound difference in demographics between the two sections in this regard is itself a historical/cultural phenomenon and an outgrowth of the different founding characteristics of these two regions.

The other is that Virginia has more than two regions. True enough on a finer scale -- you can say the same of most anyplace -- but at the level of continental significance, I stand by the two-region division, though I acknowledge that Virginia has always had a wide transitional zone -- the Piedmont -- so the border between the two can be fuzzy in spots. Tidewater gentlemen -- Jefferson the foremost exemplar -- dominated much of it, but acted as colaition builders between the two sections, as they understood Appalachian concerns and principles better than their lowland peers in the House of Burgesses.

Now I'm really looking forward to a governor's race to analyze in, say, Ohio....


  1. hi, a fine historical rendering of the tidewate/piedmont polarization during the tensions hinged on the war of 1812 can be found in alan taylor's recent book the internal enemy.

    1. Thanks much - I hadn't read this book, but am a fan of Taylor's work, especially Liberty Men and Great Proprietors. (He's a fellow Mainer by origin, incidentally.)