Big Sort

2008 Is Now a Big Sort Election

Five thousand Mormons have moved out of downtown Salt Lake City in the last five years. They haven’t left the SLC metro area, according to a July story in the Salt Lake Tribune . They’ve left the city. The Mormon population is “shifting north, south and west” out of Salt Lake City, wrote Peggy Fletcher Stack. And as Mormons move to the suburbs, “downtown Salt Lake City has grown more religiously diverse—and often more attractive to outsiders.”

Mormon families who have exited downtown SLC have clustered. Eight out of 10 residents from one of these developments are Mormon, according to Stack. “There are 28 children under 12 within nine houses on our cul de sac,” one Mormon mother, an urban refugee, told the reporter. “We are all stay-at-home moms and all Mormons. It’s great.”

Mormons load up house and hound in Mayflower trucks and U-Hauls and move out to developments with uplifting names like Daybreak and Bountiful. A more “diverse” group takes their place downtown. Over time, the city grows more liberal—the last two SLC mayors have been left-leaning Dems—and the suburbs become more Republican.

Welcome to the big sort—the social, cultural and economic phenomenon that has now taken the reins of the 2008 election and steered it back into the (depressing and divisive) pattern of 2000 and 2004.

Most U.S. communities have grown increasingly Republican or Democratic over the past 30 years. The numbers are clear-cut. Bob Cushing (the stats powerhouse in this operation) studied voting patterns at the county level in presidential elections since 1948. He found that since 1976, the trend has been for Republicans and Democrats to grow more geographically segregated. In the contest between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, about a quarter of voters lived in a county where a candidate won by more than 20 percentage points.

The last five presidential elections have been closer than any comparable period in the last century. At the same time, an increasing number of communities have developed overwhelming, and stable, local majorities. In 1992, Cushing found, 37.7 percent of American voters lived in counties where the margin was greater than 20 points. By 2000, it was 45.3 percent. The 2004 vote between John Kerry and George Bush was one of the closest in history nationally, but where people lived, the election wasn’t close at all. In six out of 10 U.S. counties, the margin (for one party or the other) was 20 percentage points or more. And nearly half of all voters lived in a community where the local results were a landslide.

Bob Cushing and I thought that a good deal of this political segregation was created by migration. The entire country was sorting—in the same way Salt Lake City was sorting. If this were true, Cushing figured a community that tipped Republican or Democratic would keep tipping as it collected more like-minded residents.

That’s exactly what he found. Once counties grew solidly Democratic or Republican, the local margins would increase in presidential votes. One half of U.S. voters live in counties that have remained unchanged in their presidential preference since 1980; 60 percent live in counties that haven’t changed since 1988; and nearly 73 percent live in counties that haven’t changed since 1992.

One early objection to our findings was that people didn’t check local voting records before they moved. That is largely true. People didn’t want neighbors who had the same opinion about single-payer health plans. They wanted to be around people who lived like they did. Who thought the way they thought. Who had the same kind of lifestyle.

And these days, lifestyle predicts political party.

When asked to explain how people choose a political party, Donald Green at Yale described two social events. Imagine you are walking down a hall, Green said. There are two doors leading to two different social gatherings. You look in at both, and then you ask yourself some questions. “Which one is filled with people that you most closely identify with?” Green asked. “Which ones would you like to have your sons and daughters marry?” You don’t pick your party by position paper. You get a vibe. You pick the group with your kind of people. And you join—and, most likely, you join for life.

That’s the way we’ve chosen where and how we live. Opposites don’t attract. Psychologists know that people seek out others like themselves for marriage and friendship. That the same phenomenon could be taking place between people and communities isn’t all that surprising to social psychologists. “Mobility enables the sociological equivalent of ‘assortative mating,’ ” social psychologist David Myers explained. At the same time, the social insularity created in these increasingly homogenous communities, churches, and clubs reinforces political partisanship. We hear and believe what our group hears and believes. Dissent is squelched, extremism is rewarded and allegiance to the group is enforced.

So, despite all promises and predictions of a new kind of post-partisan politics, this election has been jimmied back into the pattern of 2000 and ‘04. Really, who should be surprised? Elections are a reflection of how and where we live.