Are People Voting More and More Like Their Neighbors?

by ekramer on July 22, 2008

When Americans move, they usually look for neighborhoods with specific characteristics, whether they are close to the countryside or downtown or a place dotted with big box stores or boutiques. Some say they also move according to political views and it’s tearing the country apart. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.

As Americans move house more frequently, they are becoming more politically polarized, by choosing to live in neighborhoods with people who think and vote like them, so says Bill Bishop author of “The Big Sort.” He describes neighborhoods throughout the country. In his neighborhood of Austin, Texas, houses sit close together, and, in 2000, voted for Al Gore first, followed closely by Ralph Nader.

Last week, Bishop was in his home town of Louisville where we rode through several neighborhoods looking for visual cues that might mark their politics. We drive through the Highlands and into Germantown. There are yard signs for Clinton and Obama, and Bishop points out other similarities.

“You get here and all of a sudden the streets get narrower and the houses get closer together, “Bishop says. “And there up pops Lynn’s Paradise Café. You know, just out of nowhere.”

Bishop says people who move to neighborhoods like these generally want to live close to their neighbors and home-grown businesses and tend to have liberal views.

He says changing voting patterns in presidential elections at the county level illustrate that Americans are becoming politically polarized and homogenized. In 1976, they were split almost 50 / 50. In 2004, 48 percent of counties gave their winning candidate a landslide victory of 20 percent or more of the vote.

This kind of information is more difficult to gather at the neighborhood level, but Bishop attempts to document the concentration of like-minded political thinking through data such as education levels and the retail stores there.

While driving through Pleasure Ridge Park, which has conservative leanings, Bishop notices the big box stores, like Toys R Us, and starts talking about Portland, Oregon.

“When one of those shows up in their neighborhood, they think something is wrong,” he says. “And a lot of times in other neighborhoods people want those stores because they show prosperity.”

Still, Bishop concedes that visual cues don’t always illustrate a neighborhood’s politics. Pleasure Ridge Park, with a large proportion of working class families, is not always loyal to one party on Election Day. While residents tout the neighborhood’s conservative values, many also have family relatives who are union members, often moving them to vote for Democrats.

Some political scientists say Bishop’s theory isn’t the only reason for this polarization. Morris Fiorina is a professor at Stanford University and author of “Culture War: The Myth of a Polarized America.” He says people are sorting themselves into like-minded communities, but cites a stronger source of our polarized politics.

“The parties have become in this country more homogeneous as the Democrats have lost the south and the Republicans have lost the northeast,” Fiorina says. “The parties are more homogeneous than they were a generation ago, but still far less than the national party leadership and the party activists.”

Fiorina says the parties changed radically after the 1960s, when the old patronage system gave way to the strengthening of participatory procedures like primaries and caucuses. That sparked the rise of powerful interest groups which have influenced the parties with money.

The voters, he says remain moderate and cites Gallup Poll data in which the public identifies itself as split equally among Democrat, Republican and Independent. He says some people have extreme positions on contentious issues like abortion, but most have nuanced views that allow exceptions to the rule.

So, while neighborhoods are becoming more homogenous, with some having residents who frequent locally owned cafés and others dining at Applebee’s, all neighbors won’t necessarily vote the same, especially in this presidential election where candidates are playing more to the center.

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