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We’ve heard it over and over: Democratic candidates win cities. Researchers have tracked the way Democrats have dominated in cities since the ’90s. Politicians bring up America’s deep-blue cities constantly, including in stump speeches and in every debate over the Electoral College. Even FiveThirtyEight couldn’t resist joining in: In December, Galen Druke and I showed how America’s cities and tightly packed suburbs shifted toward Democrats in the most recent midterm election. The more densely populated the place, the more Democratic the voters.
But just because Republicans aren’t winning in cities doesn’t mean that no Republicans live there. Much has been made of the country’s urban-rural political divide, but almost every Democratic city has Republican enclaves, especially when you think about cities as more than just their downtowns. It’s a sign of our polarized times that these Republicans aren’t evenly distributed across the city, of course. But it’s also a sign of how centuries of American history have shaped and continue to shape where we live — and who our neighbors are.
But before we get to the sociology, let’s dig in to the geography. What did the political landscape of the city1Includes only urbanized areas with a population of 250,000 or more, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. closest to you look like in 2016?
You may notice that the map includes areas that you don’t consider urban. Take it up with the Census Bureau. The agency defines urbanized areas based on population density and how the land is used, and it has been adapting that definition for over 100 years as Americans’ settlement patterns have changed. Part of that process has been accounting for growing levels of urban sprawl and the increasing fuzziness of the lines between suburban and rural areas.
When you expand the definition of urban areas beyond their downtown areas, cities start to look less Democratic and less densely populated. In more than half of the country’s 153 biggest urban areas, Democrats got between 40 and 60 percent of the 2016 two-party vote share2Democrats got more than 60 percent of the two-party vote in about a third of these urban areas, and got less than 40 percent in about 10 percent. — the share of votes that went to one of the two major parties, ignoring third-party votes and write-in candidates. Many of those urban areas aren’t small, tightly packed areas like Manhattan but sprawling, low-density regions like Phoenix, say, or Jacksonville, Florida.
Across the country, Republicans in urban areas are more likely to be found in the less-centralized, lower-density neighborhoods. “Even if you look within the same census tract or the same ZIP code or the same precinct, and even if you’re in a place like Manhattan, Republicans will search out the less-dense part to live in,” said Steven Webster, a political scientist at Washington University.
That complicates what we tend to hear about Americans’ political segregation, which is often defined in sweeping urban vs. rural terms. Lily Geismer, a professor of political and urban history at Claremont McKenna College, said the old red-blue dichotomy has “actually been replaced by this kind of urban-rural split.” But that way of looking at things isn’t as nuanced as it needs to be, she said. Describing political polarization as urban vs. rural ignores all the forces that tug people apart within urban areas.
To see just how politically segregated America’s urban areas are, we used each city’s 2016 election results to calculate its dissimilarity index3A dissimilarity index measures the share of a given population that would need to relocate in order for that population to be evenly distributed across a larger metro area. — basically, a number that tells us how separated its Republicans and Democrats are from one another, with higher numbers indicating more segregation. This technique is most often used to measure racial segregation, but political scientists have also used it to calculate partisan segregation. (One drawback of this method: A place that votes almost uniformly for one party — Democrat-soaked San Jose, California, for example — will have a low dissimilarity score. But that doesn’t mean Republicans and Democrats live next to each other in these places; it may just mean that the larger region is politically segregated, leaving the whole city as essentially a one-party enclave.) Those calculations generated a ranking of the country’s most politically segregated cities. Here are the top 20:
And here’s where the city closest to you ranks among the country’s most populous urban areas in terms of their partisan dissimilarity index:
|Urban area|| GOP vote share|
| Partisan segregation|
|3||Baton Rouge, Louisiana||49.7%||0.56|
|6||Greater Memphis area, Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas||36.4%||0.55|
|7||Greater Columbus area, Georgia and Alabama||39.1%||0.52|
|10||Greater New York City area||33.3%||0.47|
|12||Greater Augusta area, Georgia and South Carolina||49.7%||0.45|
|16||Columbia, South Carolina||46.1%||0.42|
|17||Greater Chicago area||29.6%||0.40|
|22||Little Rock, Arkansas||43.6%||0.38|
|23||Greater St. Louis area||42.9%||0.38|
|24||Greater Philadelphia area||32.7%||0.36|
|25||Greensboro, North Carolina||31.4%||0.36|
|26||Winston-Salem, North Carolina||44.1%||0.36|
|27||Greater Chattanooga area, Tennessee and Georgia||58.1%||0.36|
|29||Greater Charlotte area, North Carolina and South Carolina||40.3%||0.36|
|30||Greater Washington, D.C., area||23.1%||0.36|
|33||Greater Cincinnati area||53.3%||0.34|
|34||Greater Los Angeles area||27.4%||0.34|
|35||Trenton, New Jersey||33.8%||0.34|
|37||Virginia Beach, Virginia||42.1%||0.33|
|38||Asheville, North Carolina||42.3%||0.33|
|40||Greater Dallas area||47.2%||0.32|
|44||Greater Springfield area, Massachusetts||37.3%||0.31|
|48||Greater Louisville area, Kentucky and Indiana||46.4%||0.30|
|49||Fayetteville, North Carolina||36.8%||0.30|
|51||Greenville, South Carolina||63.7%||0.29|
|54||Greater Boston area||32.2%||0.29|
|58||Ann Arbor, Michigan||21.9%||0.29|
|59||Buffalo, New York||44.2%||0.29|
|60||Greater Salt Lake City area||43.8%||0.28|
|61||Greater San Francisco area||13.4%||0.28|
|62||Grand Rapids, Michigan||49.9%||0.28|
|63||New Haven, Connecticut||40.9%||0.28|
|64||Indio-Cathedral City, California||40.6%||0.28|
|66||Greater Pensacola area, Florida and Alabama||60.7%||0.28|
|67||Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area||36.4%||0.28|
|68||Durham, North Carolina||15.4%||0.28|
|70||Charleston-North Charleston, South Carolina||50.5%||0.28|
|73||Greater Kansas City area, Missouri and Kansas||44.3%||0.27|
|74||Riverside-San Bernardino, California||38.4%||0.27|
|77||Greater Toledo area, Ohio and Michigan||42.0%||0.26|
|80||Greater Denver area||39.0%||0.26|
|84||Corpus Christi, Texas||49.9%||0.26|
|85||Fort Wayne, Indiana||56.9%||0.26|
|89||Greater South Bend area, Indiana and Michigan||48.3%||0.25|
|90||Fort Collins, Colorado||44.1%||0.25|
|94||Greater Fayetteville area, Arkansas and Missouri||52.8%||0.25|
|96||Rochester, New York||41.8%||0.24|
|98||Syracuse, New York||39.9%||0.24|
|99||Greater Phoenix area||50.7%||0.23|
|101||Raleigh, North Carolina||38.4%||0.23|
|104||Greater Youngstown area, Ohio and Pennsylvania||44.8%||0.23|
|106||Greater Stamford area, Connecticut and New York||39.8%||0.23|
|107||Greater El Paso area, Texas and New Mexico||26.5%||0.22|
|108||Greater Allentown area, Pennsylvania and New Jersey||47.6%||0.22|
|110||Greater Poughkeepsie area, New York and New Jersey||48.0%||0.22|
|111||Albany-Schenectady, New York||39.5%||0.22|
|112||Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida||49.2%||0.22|
|114||Albuquerque, New Mexico||40.7%||0.22|
|116||Greater Las Vegas area||43.3%||0.21|
|117||Greater Providence area, Rhode Island and Massachusetts||41.2%||0.21|
|120||Greater Omaha area, Nebraska and Iowa||53.9%||0.20|
|124||Greater Worcester area, Massachusetts and Connecticut||39.8%||0.19|
|125||Des Moines, Iowa||42.4%||0.19|
|127||Port St. Lucie, Florida||54.2%||0.18|
|128||Greater Reno area, Nevada and California||47.3%||0.18|
|129||Greater Round Lake Beach area, Illinois and Wisconsin||49.3%||0.18|
|134||Colorado Springs, Colorado||59.6%||0.17|
|136||San Jose, California||20.9%||0.15|
|138||Palm Coast-Daytona Beach-Port Orange, Florida||56.2%||0.15|
|139||Cape Coral, Florida||58.6%||0.15|
|141||Greater Davenport area, Iowa and Illinois||44.0%||0.14|
|145||Conroe-The Woodlands, Texas||70.0%||0.13|
|146||Mission Viejo-Lake Forest-San Clemente, California||51.8%||0.13|
|147||Santa Clarita, California||48.1%||0.13|
|148||Santa Rosa, California||24.0%||0.12|
|149||Palm Bay-Melbourne, Florida||58.7%||0.12|
|150||Greater Myrtle Beach area, South Carolina and North Carolina||69.2%||0.12|
|151||City of Honolulu||33.0%||0.12|
|152||Bonita Springs, Florida||63.8%||0.12|
An obvious trend jumps out when you look at the most politically segregated cities: They’re also the cities with some of the highest proportions of black residents. The persistence of racial segregation in American cities continues to define those cities’ politics. “There is still the question of why these things persist now, 51 years after the Fair Housing Act,” said Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, professor of African American studies at Princeton. “Part of the reason is the federal government continues to connect its housing policies to private-sector housing producers. The programs, to the extent that they do exist, are yoked to the private sector, which not only has a history steeped in racial discrimination but has made contemporary practices that are connected to that. This is not ancient history.”
It’s not surprising, then, that when we looked at the country’s largest cities, we found a strong correlation between black-white segregation and political segregation. Since black voters are almost uniformly Democrats, it stands to reason that when many of a city’s black residents live in just a few areas, those areas will be overwhelmingly Democratic, and fewer Democrats will be living next door to Republicans. The same dynamic holds true when you group together all Hispanic and nonwhite voters, though the correlation isn’t as strong. And that’s why, when you chart a city’s racial segregation4Again using a dissimilarity index, but this time looking at how segregated non-Hispanic white residents are from everyone else. All race data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 2017 five-year estimates. against its partisan segregation, you can see that as one goes up, the other tends to rise as well:
But racial segregation alone can’t explain how polarized our cities are. Even in many cities with relatively few Hispanic and nonwhite residents, we see similar patterns of political segregation, with more Republicans in the less-densely populated outer edges of the urban areas and more Democrats in the tightly packed downtowns. These trends show up even in cities that are over 80 percent white, such as Springfield, Missouri; Boise, Idaho; Spokane, Washington; and Pittsburgh.
Researchers have plenty of theories as to why this happens. The best-known hypothesis comes from “The Big Sort,” a 2008 book co-authored by journalist Bill Bishop that described Americans as choosing to live in homogenous communities according to their how they live and their political preferences. “It’s identity all the way down,” Bishop said. “Places are getting more segregated. It is a function of choice, economy, work, lifestyle. … Lifestyle these days equate[s] to political choice.”
Two political scientists — Washington University’s Webster and Stanford’s Gregory Martin — recently explored the inverse of the “Big Sort” theory by trying to calculate how much partisan polarization was driven by Americans’ decisions about where to move. “Republicans and Democrats, they would like to live around other Republicans and Democrats, but that desire is small compared to more practical things, like the affordability of homes or the quality of schools,” Webster said. Instead, he said, “places shape people” more than people are sorting themselves into places.
Researchers agree that as politics have become more identity-driven and polarized, those factors are exacerbating the country’s geographic polarization. And that geographic polarization may, in turn, be contributing to our political polarization.
Come 2020, all these factors are still going to be in play. Racial segregation isn’t going to magically disappear in the next year. According to a 2018 analysis by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a nonprofit that helps secure more funding for underserved communities, in three out of four neighborhoods subjected to a practice known as “redlining” — in which banks and the federal government made it almost impossible to get a mortgage in African American neighborhoods, reinforcing the practice of housing segregation in those communities — the median income, even today, is still at least 20 percent lower than the median for the larger area. Over half of these neighborhoods are still primarily nonwhite.
Likewise, Americans are unlikely to stop conflating their identity with their politics anytime soon. If anything, the culture wars of the last few years suggest the opposite. So prepare for another deluge of stories saying that urban Republicans are an endangered species come late 2020. But remember it’s not that they’re not there — it’s just that they’re not winning. And they aren’t living next door to many Democrats, either.