The Real Swing Voters
My sense is that the conventional political wisdom is that urban voters are Democrats, rural voters are Republicans and suburbanites are in the middle.
New York certainly shows not only that this is the case, but that this is far more true than a few decades ago. For example, let's compare the 1976 and 2012 presidential elections, both narrowly lost by Republicans. In 1976, the GOP vote in the four urban boroughs of New York City (excepting more suburban Staten Island) ranged from 25.5 percent (Manhattan) to 38.9 percent (Queens). President Ford carried both Westchester County and Long Island's two counties with percentages ranging from 51.8 (Nassau) to 54.3 (Westchester). By contrast, by 2012 Republican support in the four boroughs had collapsed; in the most Republican urban borough, Queens, Gov. Romney only got 20.3 percent of the vote. Republican support also nosedived in suburbia: Romney received only 38.3 percent of Westchester's votes, and lost Long Island by a somewhat narrower margin.
This does not mean, however, that suburbanites are necessarily "swing voters", in the sense of people whose votes change from election to election. Between 2004 (the last Presidential election in which a Republican won nationwide) and 2012, the Republican vote share decreased by only 0.4 percent in Long Island's Nassau County (from 46.6 to 46.2), 0.5 in Suffolk (from 48.5 to 48.0), and 2.1 in Westchester (from 40.3 to 38.2).
By contrast, Republican losses were larger in parts of urban New York City: the Republicans lost 6.7 percent in Brooklyn (going from 24.3 in 2004 to 17.6 in 2012), 8.2 in the Bronx (going from 16.5 to 8.3), and 7.2 in Queens (from 27.5 to 20.3). (Manhattan was more consistent, giving President Bush 16.7 percent of the vote, only 2.3 percent more than Romney).
Philadelphia's trends were pretty similar. The Republican vote share in Philadelphia has rapidly declined over the years, from 32 percent in 1976 to 19.3 percent in 2004 to 14 percent in 2012. Republicans have also nosedived in the suburbs but somewhat less rapidly. In affluent, inner suburban Montgomery County, Republicans declined from 56 percent of the vote in 1976 to 44 percent in 2004 to 42.4 percent this year. In exurban Chester County, the decline was slightly more gradual: from 60.4 percent in 1976 to 52 percent in 2004 to 49.7 percent this year. Again, note that the Republican losses since 2004 were greater in Philadelphia than in the suburbs.
So in a sense, urbanites were the real swing voters.
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