Population Growth and Conservatism

Talk of population growth among conservatives often leads to two basic perspectives: (1) environmental concerns over excessive population growth are largely unfounded (i.e., the rejection of Paul Ehrlich's "Population Bomb" hypothesis); and (2) more population growth equals larger economic markets, which is a good thing.  But population growth is not always supportive of true conservative principles, and the trends are heading in a problematic direction.

The urban-rural vote split needs to be front-and-center in conservative political strategizing.  It is not working in our favor.  After the 2010 mid-term elections, The Economist magazine noted that "there's scarcely a major city in America that isn't represented in congress by Democrats. Run down the top 30 incorporated places in America; the only ones represented by Republicans are Fort Worth, Texas and (as of January) Columbus, Ohio. Every other major city in Texas, and in fact every other major city in the South, is represented mainly by Democrats."

By 2012, the situation was even worse.  For example, Romney won 55 of 67 counties in Pennsylvania and still lost the state in dramatic fashion, due in large part to the 466,000-vote margin Obama ran up in the urbanized Philadelphia counties alone.  The only major cities that voted for Romney were Phoenix (which nearly went for Obama), Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, and Salt Lake City (Romney's "hometown").  Among the top 30 most populous cities, 27 voted for Obama.

The following map of county-level voting results from the 2012 election drives the urban-rural divide home.

Of course, Republican victories are more correctly highlighted in freedom blue on this figure, with Democrat wins in commie red (rather than Tim Russert's backwards red state-blue state nonsense).  Democratic wins in the Cascadia, Northern and Southern California, Arizona Sun Corridor, Front Range, Great Lakes, Texas Triangle, Gulf Coast, Florida, Piedmont Atlantic, and Northeast mega-regions are obvious.

In her study of urban-rural voting gaps in U.S. elections between 1888 and 2004, Kimberly Karnes from Old Dominion University found that Republican victories in the 1890s and early 1900s were due in large part to the support of urban voters.  Times were changing, however.  In 1968, Democrats performed better in urban versus rural areas for the first time (while Nixon received 68% of the rural vote), a Democratic trend which has continued up to the present with a single exception -- the 1976 election of Carter.  Both Reagan and George W. Bush also won substantial rural majorities, with Bush receiving only 46% of the urban vote in 2004.  Indeed, Bush would not have won the presidency had it not been for his rural dominance.  The urban-rural gap is also widening in favor of Democrats in urban areas and Republicans in rural regions.

Lawrence Hamilton from the University of New Hampshire reported the following findings regarding the 2004 election: "Even after adjusting for ethnicity, education, and region, population density remains a significant predictor of votes in the Midwest, South and West. Higher-density counties gave proportionately fewer votes to Bush."  Hamilton presented a compelling plot showing a strong negative correlation at the national level between the percentage voting for Bush in 2004 by county and the corresponding population density.

This correlation is not unique to the USA.  During the Canadian 2011 federal election, we find the same correlation (p<10-10; r=-0.37).

In Toronto, the Conservative Party received only 23% of the vote.  Outside the Greater Toronto Area, the Conservatives' support nearly doubled to over 38%.  In Vancouver, the Conservatives won 22% of the vote.  For the rest of the province of British Columbia, Conservative Party support was at 42%.

So what's the core problem?  As shown in the figures below, both countries are urbanizing rapidly.  Currently, 83% of Americans and 81% of Canadians live in urban areas, with 48% and 44%, respectively, in urban areas of over 1,000,000 people

This latter statistic warrants particular attention. In its study of "The Most Conservative and Liberal Cities in the United States," the Bay Area Center for Voting Research found that among the nine cities examined with populations of >1,000,000, five were in the top 40 liberal rank, none ranked higher than 62 in the conservative rank, and the average liberal ranking for the nine cities was 85 compared to the average conservative ranking of 154 for the same sites.  Detroit's population is just shy of 1 million (951,270), and it is the most liberal city in the USA (and now also bankrupt -- undoubtedly the two factors are causally related in both directions).

In Canada during the 2011 election, the Conservatives won only 30% of the vote in cities of >1,000,000.  Their share increased to 41% in cities of between 100,000 and 500,000, and up to 44% to 46% in communities ranging from <1,500 to between 10,000 and 100,000.

In short, major cities having more than 1 million inhabitants are far more likely to be liberal than conservative.  Consequently, with more of the population residing in these types of metropolitan areas, the overall liberal vote percentage will climb.  As The Atlantic notes, "voting data suggest that people don't make cities liberal -- cities make people liberal."  Conservatives are even losing the suburbs; "the overall tendency for suburbanites to vote for Republican presidential candidates has declined since the Reagan elections."

There are some tough demographic challenges ahead for conservative policymakers.  Either conservatives will need to find ways of promoting a rural population renaissance via innovative socioeconomic policies over the next decade, or they will probably have to liberalize their general policies to increasingly match the inherent voting preferences of an ever-more urbanized populace if they want to win elections.  My vote is for the former plan of attack, but the clock is ticking.  Either rural America gets rejuvenated, or RINOs and other faux conservatives may end up ruling the roost in perpetuity.